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Owl or Lark? Why Sleep is So Personal

Owl or Lark? Why Sleep is So Personal 

There are plenty of people who routinely burn through the midnight oil — but is it healthy? It may depend on their unique circadian rhythm. Learn how researchers are exploring the link between genetics and sleep. 

When it comes to your sleeping habits, do you take on the characteristics of an owl or a lark? It may depend on your genetics.

While health experts recommend adults aim for getting seven hours of sleep at night, there are plenty of people who routinely burn through the midnight oil — and manage to get by on just four hours of sleep at night. Martha Stewart is one such celebrity, while other notable names such as Ellen Degeneres or Elon Musk insist on getting a full eight hours of rest, rising at the crack of dawn to tackle the next day. So, what is normal sleep?

What is a circadian rhythm?

The truth is not everybody needs the same amount of sleep at night. The individual preferences for the range of hours of sleep people need to lead healthy, happy, and productive lives depends on each person’s unique circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms are the natural processes that respond to light and darkness — such as your sleep-wake cycle — within a 24-hour period. These changes include physical, mental, and behavioral shifts; think of a toddler getting cranky right before bedtime. 

Your sleep-wake cycle is influenced by your body’s internal clock, a group of neurons called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN, located in the hypothalamus of the brain, which determines your body’s natural timing and sleeping patterns. SCN is also responsible for the production of melatonin, which is the hormone that helps regulate your circadian rhythm and make you feel sleepy. 

But these signals can often fall out of sync due to different phases of life, or external environmental factors, such as when you travel to a different timezone, resulting in jet lag. Other affecting factors include certain behaviors and lifestyles, such as working alternating job shifts, pulling an all-nighter, or scrolling too long on a smartphone. They can also be manipulated such as when you set an alarm clock or drink too much caffeine. 

In fact, it is estimated that more than half the population in industrialized societies may have circadian rhythms out of sync. 

The genetic link to sleep

For centuries, people have been trying to understand the natural patterns of sleep, the ideal sleep duration, and sleep’s effect on overall health. 

In a 2017 landmark study, researchers isolated a gene that helps to control the body’s internal clock and influences sleep. By studying fruit flies, they were able to show that the gene produced a specific protein that built-up over night and broke down over the day, affecting the quality of a person’s sleep, their brain cognition, and more. The team also linked circadian dysfunctions to sleep disorders, as well as depression, memory formation and some neurological diseases. 

In the study, the researchers cited Hirota and Kay: “Chronic misalignment between our lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by our endogenous circadian clock may be associated with increased risk for various diseases, including cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, metabolic disorders and inflammation. Efforts are underway to … modify the period, phase or amplitude of circadian clocks to improve human health.”   

This research, along with so many others, have launched a new field of research called sleep genetics. In an article for TIME,  neurology professors Dr. Louis Ptacek and Ying-Hui Fu argued that sleep duration wasn’t exactly universal — it was actually based on genetics. And when larks or owls attempted to follow so-called “normal” sleep schedules, it disrupted their quality of sleep and led to issues such as excessive sleepiness or insomnia. 

“There are many people who think everyone needs eight to eight and a half hours of sleep per night and there will be health consequences if they don’t get it,” Ptacek told the magazine. “But that’s as crazy as saying everybody has to be 5 ft. 10 in. tall. It’s just not true.”  

Ptacek and Fu discovered two genes connected to natural short sleep, proving that some individuals are hard-wired to function normally on say, six hours of sleep, rather than the recommended eight due to a rare genetic mutation. However, another study found that these genetic variations can actually make some people more vulnerable to the adverse effects of sleep loss, leading to increased risk of insomnia. 

By studying the genetic variations of circadian rhythms, researchers hope to develop new ways of treating sleep loss, while others believe that understanding biological clocks is key to the future of personalized medicine. 

Fix poor sleep with a personalized sleep solution 

Whether you regularly sleep six hours a night or eight, there are signs you can look for if you aren’t getting enough quality sleep. While some of these signs are subtle, like breakouts, dark or puffy eyes, frequent yawning, or nodding off during the daytime, prolonged periods of sleep deprivation can have negative impacts on your health. In fact, even just a few nights of bad sleep can affect your mood, or lead to more serious issues such as weight gain, high blood pressure, and lowered immunity.  

Sleep is an essential function that drives every physiological system in the body, and doctors routinely recommend sufficient sleep as a preventative health measure. When you’re not getting enough rest, you simply can’t perform at your best. 

Traditional sleep aids present a one-size-fits-all solution. At RealSleep, we understand how personal sleep can be. That’s why we’ve developed the world’s first personalized sleep solution. Our sleep-enhancing formula combines the calming effects of CBD and other plant-based ingredients designed to work naturally with your body and help regulate your circadian rhythms to induce deeper, more restorative sleep. 

Ready to discover your customized formula? Take our Sleep Quiz to start getting real sleep tonight.

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