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On Being a Night Owl

Scientific studies have shown that our tendencies to be either an early bird or a night owl seem to be genetically programmed, and now a new study has revealed that whether you are born with or without the early bird gene can have a great deal to do with your financial success, and even with your sex life.

Though much has been made of short-sleepers, people who possess a gene mutation that allows certain people to get by on just a few hours of sleep per night and to function perfectly well, the presence of that gene is extremely rare. But there is a common gene variant that we all seem to have, and the way that it presents itself is what determines whether you are the kind of person who wakes up early in the morning or stays up into the wee hours of the night.  Interestingly, the gene also seems to predict the time of day at which a person is most likely to die. Researchers in the laboratory of the Department of Neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center studied 1,200 people who wore actigraphs to provide a record of their activity. The group agreed to donate their brains to science after their death. Analysis of the information showed that the wake-sleep behaviors of the group were closely linked to the location of a nucleotide near a gene called Period 1, and that its location determined what time people woke up and what time they went to bed.  The discovery, which took place a few years ago, marked one of the biggest contributions of a single gene to determining the body’s circadian rhythm. 

Studies show that there is a correlation with your genes and your sleep patterns. Studies show that there is a correlation with your genes and your sleep patterns.

According to Clifford Saper, MD, PhD, Chief of Neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess, “This particular genotype affects the sleep-wake pattern of virtually everyone walking around, and it is a fairly profound effect so that the people who have the A-A genotype wake up about an hour earlier than the people who have the G-G genotype, and the A-Gs wake up almost exactly in the middle.” He goes on to say, “Virtually all physiological processes have a circadian rhythm, meaning that they occur predominantly at certain parts of the day. There’s even a circadian rhythm of death, so that in the general population people tend on average to be most likely to die in the morning hours. Sometime around 11 am is the average time. So there is really a gene that predicts the time of day that you’ll die. Not the date, fortunately, but the time of day.”

The scientists involved in this study hoped that their research would be used to identify additional variants that the gene influenced so that changes might be made to when medications are taken or the most advantageous time for exercise for a specific gene type. But a new study coming out of the University of Chicago has taken it in a different direction and has investigated the social impact of being a night owl or an early bird – and what this research has shown is that women who are night owls are more likely to have sex, but those who are early birds are more likely to be married.

The research was conducted by Dario Maestripieri of the Department of Comparative Human Development and was published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. It concluded that women who are night owls are more similar to men in their risk-taking tendencies than to early rising women, and that both night owl men and night owl women have a tendency towards short-term relationships.

The study found that levels of both cortisol and testosterone are higher in men than in women, but that women who tended to be night owls had levels of cortisol that were roughly equivalent to that of men. Cortisol is a hormone that has been linked to high energy levels, stress, and cognitive function. Previous studies have linked high cortisol levels to financial success, and based upon this research that increased success may be a result of being more likely to take more risks.

The researchers concluded that being a night owl may have involved as a way of enabling our ancestors to be sexually active once the community that they lived among had fallen asleep. “From an evolutionary perspective, it has been suggested that the night-owl trait may have evolved to facilitate short-term mating, that is, sexual interactions that occur outside of committed, monogamous relationships. Being active in the evening hours increased the opportunities to engage in social and mating activities, when adults were less burdened by work or child-rearing.”

Previous studies have shown that men who stay up later have sex twice as often as those who are early risers. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the times that we are naturally programmed to wake up or go to sleep are responsible for much of our behavior as well as our physiology. Another study conducted at the Institute for Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Zurich in Switzerland showed that even our skin cells can be used to identify each of us as being early risers or night owls. In a study that took skin scrapings from volunteers who had previously self-identified as being either ‘larks’ or ‘owls.’ The scrapings were injected with a bioluminescence gene that is found in fireflies and were found to either light up or dim in a pattern that was in keeping with the individual’s sleep routine. Morning people’s skin glowed for the shortest amount of time and night owls’ skin glowed for the longest period.

One thing that these studies definitely proves is that these tendencies are genetically preordained, and that though that does not mean that they are insurmountable, those who adjust to match their partners’ sleep cycles or to work on a night shift when they are a morning person face serious challenges.

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