Either you, or someone you know, are what people call “night owls” – individuals who cannot fall asleep at times deemed regular by most. These people suffer from what science calls “delayed sleep phase disorder”. In short, these are people who prefer staying up late and simply hate early mornings.
In a previous post, we’ve already talked about the internal time keeping machine – our biological clock or circadian rhythms – that regulates our body’s response to environmental stimuli, especially light. If the clock is functioning perfectly, every human being on this planet should feel sleepy as night falls and lights dim.
However, scientists have found out that people, whom we call “night owls” carry a mutated form of a gene called CLOCK gene that is an important gene of the biological clock. Scientists studying this phenomenon also found that relatives of such a person also carry this mutation and display a history of sleep problems. It was found that either the sleep pattern in these people had shifted by 2 to 4 hours or had an erratic pattern altogether.
This mutation was found to slow down the biological clock allowing such individuals to have a slower circadian rhythms and a longer circadian cycle. While the distribution of this mutation is still not clearly known, scientists believe that in some populations like the Europeans of non-Finnish descent, this mutation might be present in as many as 75% of people.
But this does not spell doom for people with delayed sleep phase disorders. Information about our genes is a powerful tool for targeted intervention. Similarly, if we have information about these mutations and through history we know that a particular individual has a longer circadian cycle, steps can be taken to regularise sleep patterns.
Mutations in genes of the circadian cycle have many other implications on our health as well. For example, some gene variants make individuals more active as the day progresses. These people are on top of their game in the evenings when other people are looking to wind down after a hectic day’s work. While these people are often seen as anomalies, for them, personally, it is just the way they are.
Also, in many people who feel active in the evenings, their bodies are most receptive to exercising and other physical activities. In fact, these individuals will gain maximum benefit from exercising only if they do it in the evenings. So if such an individual is on a weight loss regime, he or she has to exercise in the evening for maximum benefit. This can be gauged from a simple, painless gene test.
Genetic information is revolutionizing medicare, especially preventive medicare. If we know what our genes have to say, we can use this potent information to stop many chronic and debilitating diseases from happening through the right intervention that focusses on diet and lifestyle modifications. This in turn can amount to savings of millions of rupees in treatments. We have the technological wherewithal backed by solid research and that gene tests will become as common as blood grouping tests is a given.