Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Sleeping habits are genetic: Individuals are pre-disposed to sleep at different times

You might struggle to fall sleep or stay awake at the same time as everybody else. It is not your fault, according to science. Discover how your body follows a sleeping clock that you can't control.

You are not alone - I also struggle to sleep at the right times

I have constantly fought to keep the same sleeping schedule as everybody else. I refer to myself as a night owl. My body and my mind have plenty of energy at night and I can get so much done with a few extra hours of work after everybody else has gone to bed. Unfortunately, my body drags throughout the first half of the day as a result. I used to chalk this up to a bad sleeping schedule, but research suggests otherwise.

We all have different chronotypes

I watched a TEDx Talk by Dr. Michael Breus, a sleep doctor who addresses the fact that different people tend to fall asleep and awake up at different times. We typically refer to people who struggle to fall asleep at night, yet struggle to be awake during the day, as night owls. We refer to people who wake up super early with bouts of energy, but can't stay awake too long past their bed time, as early birds.

A person's chronotype determines which category they fall under in terms of their sleeping patterns. Dr. Michael Breus revolutionized the way that we look at chronotypes by categorizing them into 4 categories instead of the typical 2. He argues that instead of the usual 'night owl' or 'early bird' chronotypes, there are actually 4 different chronotypes. He names them 'lions', 'bears', 'dolphins', and 'wolves'.

The difference between lions, bears, dolphins and wolves 

Dr. Michael Breus explains that lions are the type of people who wake up super early and have most of their energy at the beginning of the day. They also tire quickly and struggle to stay awake soon after night fall. Bears make up most of the population. They wake up soon after sunrise and go to bed after night fall. Society has modeled itself after the bear's sleeping schedule. Dolphins struggle to have a good night's sleep in general and are commonly self-confessed insomniacs. They crave long bouts of sleep but usually can't sleep for too long before they wake up. In their cases, this often leads to feelings of anxiety or depression. Wolves refer to people who feel the most awake during the second half of the day and late into the night. They often struggle to stay awake before 12 pm.

This chronotype is hardwired into our DNA

A very interesting aspect of Dr. Breus' presentation was the fact that our preferred sleeping patterns are more than just a culmination of our lifestyle choices: Genetic tests can determine a person's chronotype. This means that when we feel sleepy and when we feel awake is hardwired into us on a genetic level.

He explains that the circadian rhythm and time-sensitive hormone secretions govern our energy levels and the way that we operate. You can watch his presentation here:

Adjusting your lifestyle to match your chronotype

Adjusting your lifestyle to correspond with your sleeping preferences, instead of the other way around, has shown remarkable health and productivity benefits for Dr. Breus' patients.

The Genetic connection to sleep is not a new idea

You might wonder if Dr. Breus was the only one to explain how sleep patterns are encoded into our genes. There is a lot of scientific evidence that shows that how we sleep (and how much sleep we need) is determined by genetic factors. Live Science covers a study that found that two parts of our DNA reveal how much sleep we need on an individual basis. You can read the original study here, which directly states that sleep patterns are a hereditary trait. You can find more scientific evidence on the connection between genetics and sleep here.

Can you change your chronotype?

Tuck says that you can't - or at least not deliberately. Our chronotypes change naturally as we progress through life. Young children are generally natural early morning rises. This reverses as they progress into teenage years. Teenagers tend to be more awake during later hours and require more sleep in the later morning hours. Older people tend to rise up earlier and slumber sooner.

Adam Conover from 'Adam Ruins Everything' comically covers how high-school students are hardwired to sleep later in the day. You can check out the video here:

Do lifestyle factors affect sleep?

Yes they do. The time between your last meal of the day and when you sleep will affect sleep quality. Midnight snacking is another factor that negatively affects sleep. One of the benefits of regular exercises is its ability to increase sleep quality, improve energy production and enhance mental and physical recovery. I have also covered how sleeping too much can be just as bad for you as sleeping too little. This list of ways to coax your body into sleep can also be effective in helping you to get a good night's rest.

Can you train your body to wake up and sleep at specific time of the day?

I will be conducting my own experiment to see whether I can change when my body feels energized and when it wants to sleep. I will try to do this by exercising and practicing relation methods at certain times of the day to signal when my body should sleep. The results (along with conclusions and actionable advice) will be posted on this site in a week's time. Wish me luck!

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