We’ve all been there. Tossing and turning all night. Rearranging the pillow. Sometimes, no matter how much you want it, sleep just won’t come. And some people are doomed to experience this more than others. Night owls operate differently to everyone else, regularly finding themselves unable to sleep at normal hours. Now, though, researchers think they might have cracked the reason why.
There’s actually a technical term to describe the state of an individual who can’t sleep at normal times. If a person’s unable to sleep until it gets really late – and consequently struggles to awaken early the next morning – they could suffer from delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS). And this disorder can prove to be truly disruptive.
In essence, a person living with DSPS has trouble slipping off to sleep at a time most would consider ordinary. Instead, they’ll stay awake, or they’ll bypass the ordeal altogether by heading to bed much later. In either case, getting up the next morning will be more of a trial.
What’s more, DSPS contrasts with different types of sleeping disorders like insomnia or sleep apnea. You see, sufferers of the disorder might generally sleep really well – but only after they actually drift off. The issue is that their body clock is way off the mark. And having a high quality sleep doesn’t count for much when you don’t have enough of it.
Now, it’s said that DSPS can emerge in children, but generally speaking it’s first observed in teenagers. Of course, many teens have what their elders might consider to be unusual sleeping patterns. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re afflicted with delayed sleep phase syndrome, but a minority of them just might be.
Amazingly, not every individual who has DSPS is disadvantaged by their disorder, though. People with jobs that require them to stay awake at night, for instance, might even find it beneficial. Other sufferers, however, can find that the condition has a negative effect on their personal relationships, education or career.
Geneticist Michael Young has elaborated on how sufferers who have the disorder might feel. Speaking in a press release, the scientist said, “It’s as if these people have perpetual jet lag, moving eastward every day. In the morning, they’re not ready for the next day to arrive.”
Along with several others, Young has been trying to figure out exactly why certain people live with DSPS. And thanks to this group’s efforts, a theory has emerged to account for the disorder. Perhaps their work – which has been published in a journal called Cell – will go some way to helping sufferers.
Gaining a better understanding of DSPS is an important endeavor. After all, it seems that a substantial number of people are forced to live with the disorder. According to the Cleveland Clinic, in fact, somewhere between seven and 16 percent of all teenagers have it. And it affects grownups, too.
Most importantly, a lack of sleep can actually be downright dangerous. If an overly tired person gets behind the wheel of a car, for example, we can easily imagine how bad things can potentially get. In fact, it’s been said that tiredness can alter a person’s ability to drive safely as much as alcohol can.
Other research has suggested that a lack of sleep can also make workplace accidents more likely. And if a sleepy person operates heavy machinery for their job, it’s clear to see how things could turn out. Furthermore, sleep-deprived employees are more inclined to experience repeated incidents of the same nature.
Speaking more generally, we can say that sleep is essential for a person’s ability to comprehend ideas and to learn. If someone doesn’t get enough rest, though, their faculties will be compromised. As we’ve all experienced at one point or another, tiredness makes it difficult to concentrate and solve problems.
And on top of that, our memories might begin to suffer if we don’t manage to get enough sleep. That’s because the day’s events are “consolidated” after we’ve slipped into a slumber. To put it simply, this means that we’ll be able to access these episodes as memories later on.
Worryingly, a lack of sufficient sleep can also lead to a worse state of mind. Indeed, some research has suggested a link between depression and a person’s inability to get enough rest. In fact, a survey in 2005 found that Americans who suffered from anxiety or depression tended to sleep for a shorter period than most.
Perhaps most surprisingly, a link has been noted between a lack of sleep and how much a person weighs. You see, if a person doesn’t rest sufficiently, this apparently causes an increase in their appetite. In fact, a 2004 study suggested that individuals that slept for under six hours daily were around 30 percent more inclined to be obese.
Explaining why this might be, sleep expert Dr. Allison Siebern described the effect of certain hormones on a person’s appetite to WebMD. “Ghrelin stimulates hunger and leptin signals satiety to the brain and suppresses appetite,” she said. “Shortened sleep time is associated with decreases in leptin and elevations in ghrelin.”
Furthermore, Dr. Phil Gehrman, a sleep expert, said other problems can emerge through a lack of sleep. He told WebMD, “Over time, people who are getting six hours of sleep, instead of seven or eight, begin to feel that they’ve adapted to that sleep deprivation – they’ve gotten used to it. But if you look at how they do on tests of mental alertness and performance, they continue to go downhill. So there’s a point when we lose touch with how impaired we are.”
So, we’ve demonstrated how important sleep is for our bodies and minds. But a further example lies in the Whitehall II Study, the findings of which were disclosed in 2007. Here, researchers looked at around 10,000 civil servants in Britain across 20 years or so. And they found that people not getting enough sleep were about two times more at risk of death from conditions such as cardiovascular disease than those who did.
It’s vital, then, that people get a good night’s sleep. And for those that don’t, it’s important that they address the reasons why. Hopefully, they can then overcome them and live more healthily. But what exactly might the reasons behind people not getting enough rest be? Well, several factors need to be considered.
For one thing, individuals might simply be conditioned not to sleep as much as they need to. If you’re thinking about sleeping and yet you’re unable to actually do so, this could make you anxious. This in itself will then interfere with your ability to sleep. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Other health issues could also interfere severely in a person’s sleep cycle. If a person suffers from something like asthma or even mental health issues, then they might stay awake too late. Furthermore, it could be that something as simple as a common cold is to blame.
A lack of sleep might even be the result of a person’s own bad habits. Yes, instead of switching off the lights and getting some shut-eye, they might opt to stay up to read or watch TV. Perhaps they might decide to go out and meet up with friends. All these things can add up and leave a person feeling tired the rest of the time.
And let’s not forget that consuming stimulants, like coffee, too late in the day is a troublemaker, too. Plus, if a person smokes, this can have an impact. To add to that, if a person’s bedroom has unfavorable conditions – like heat, bright lights or noise – then, low and behold, sleep is impacted.
These days we shouldn’t underestimate specific light sources especially, given they’re a massive part of our lives. Electronic devices, for example, tend to give of blue wavelengths of light. Compared to other colors, blue light is said to particularly increase a person’s reactions and concentration. And while useful during the day, at night it’s troublesome.
Yes, light can severely impact the way our bodies function. Our circadian rhythms – which is a fancier term for our body clocks – can become disjointed as a result of light exposure at night. Before artificial lighting became a factor of life, this wasn’t particularly a problem. Now, though, total darkness is harder to come by.
All the reasons discussed so far as to why a person might struggle to sleep are, in some way, obvious. A person who watches TV too late or who has an underlying health issue will naturally struggle to sleep as well as a person who doesn’t. However, a new study has suggested another factor entirely for people who can’t drift off at night. So night owls, get ready.
According to this piece of research, it’s all down to genetics. You see, the authors of the study have found that a specific gene can seemingly lead to a person experiencing an unusual body clock. This is the CRY1 gene, and if it’s subject to a mutation, then a person will typically fall asleep around two hours later than the rest of us.
The lead author of the study was Alina Patke, who elaborated on its findings in a statement. She said, “Carriers of the mutation have longer days than the planet gives them, so they are essentially playing catch-up for their entire lives.” Amazingly, this research is the first to link genetics and delayed sleep phase disorder.
Funnily enough, the mutation in CRY1 essentially means that a person would run on a body clock more suited to Mars. You see, these people’s bodies are aligned to a roughly 24-and-a-half-hour day. This is pretty close to the length of a day on Mars, which stands at 24 hours and 39 minutes.
As Young who supervised the study, pointed out, this is comparable to a person experiencing a constant level of jet lag. Essentially, individuals that have this mutated gene are always out of sync with the world around them. They just can’t sleep at a time that works.
And a person’s life can be impacted in more ways than one. Certainly, it can turn them into night owls that are incapable of falling asleep at an appropriate time. But the quality of the sleep can also take a knock.
Lead author Patke explained more about how the nature of a person’s sleep can be affected to NBC News in April 2017. She said, “For some, it causes a fragmented sleep. They actually went to bed rather early. They only slept for about two hours. Then they took long naps throughout the day.”
In addition to all that, the CRY1 mutation can impact a person in more ways than just their sleeping cycle. The ability for an individual’s body to regulate its temperature can be compromised. And Patke and her colleagues also want to investigate other potential consequences, like whether or not it can be linked to the emergence of certain diseases.
Speaking to NBC News about how the study was undertaken, Patke talked about a 46-year-old woman who was being observed. This lady was placed inside an apartment that cut her off from any sense of time. For instance, the place didn’t have any windows, and she couldn’t watch TV, log on to the internet, or check the time with a watch or clock.
Basically, these specific conditions left the woman without any real sense of orientation within the context of the day. As Patke put it, “They didn’t know what time of day it was. The idea was to see what they lived like when they were just controlled by their own clock.”
And the researchers found that this lady was unable to sleep for eight hours in one go. Rather, she frequently woke up and fell back to sleep. Despite this, the brain waves that one would expect to see in a typical sleeping person were being emitted. It was just simply that this person’s natural sleeping cycle was set over the course of 24 and a half hours.
This can prove to be an awkward way of life here on Earth, but perhaps it would be useful further afield. As Patke pointed out to NBC, “I remember reading that for people who control these Mars rovers at [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory], they have to work on a Mars sol [day] cycle. The rovers are only active when the Sun shines on Mars.”
When people finally start undertaking manned missions to Mars, then perhaps the CRY1 mutation would be useful in astronauts. However, there might be much more to take into consideration. As Patke put it, “Somebody who has that mutation might be well suited as a [Mars mission] volunteer, but there may be more factors that go into that.”
It’s no surprise that Patke has taken such an interest in this subject. She is, after all, a night owl in her own right. As such, it was natural that she herself underwent testing in search of the CRY1 mutation. Yet the results showed that it wasn’t present. So, we can safely presume that there are other things keeping night owls awake, too.
With that in mind, there are measures that carriers can take in an attempt to help them sleep better. It just requires a bit of effort. As Patke said in her statement, “An external cycle and good sleep hygiene can help force a slow-running clock to accommodate a 24-hour day. We just have to work harder at it.”