This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Australia, which closed in 2021.

Are You A Night Owl? It Could Be In Your Genes

So stop blaming Netflix.
Just one more episode...
Just one more episode...

Whether you're a night owl, an early bird or somewhere in-between, your sleeping habits could be less to do with what's on Netflix and more to do with your genetic make-up. (Though, let's be real, Netflix probably plays into it at least a liiiittle bit.)

While there are a number of factors that play into our individual sleeping patterns (for example, the amount of sunlight we are exposed to each day) we also actually possess 'clock genes' which help determine our circadian rhythm.

In other words, certain genes can affect our cycle of sleep and wakefulness as well as whether or not we fall into the 'night owl' or 'early bird' category. Meaning next time your partner gets cross at you for wanting to read in bed after they go to sleep, you can say, 'babe, it's not me. It's my INTERNAL CIRCADIAN BIOLOGICAL CLOCK, ok!?'

So. How does it all work?

"I think first of all, it's worthwhile noting that we tend to have rhythms of wakefulness and tiredness," Dr Dev Banerjee from Integrated Sleep Health told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Naturally, in simple terms, when it's dark, we tend to be intrinsically sleepy. When the sun is out we're more awake."

Interestingly, an adult's strongest sleep drive generally occurs between 2am and 4am, and, in the afternoon, between 1-3pm (making the idea of a Mediterranean-style siesta seem all the more appealing). This however is open to variation depending on whether you're a 'morning' or 'evening' person.

And as for what determines that?

"We have something called sleep clock genes which determine your circadian rhythm," Banerjee said. "Your circadian rhythm typically runs on a cycle of 24 hours, though it's possible to have genes where the clock runs a little bit slower, and isn't quite 24 hours on the mark. These people tend to be night owls.

"Those whose clock is spot-on on time tend to be more of an early bird."

Ugh. Morning people.
Ugh. Morning people.

Scientific theories also extend to the period (PER) gene and whether or not that could have any effect on a human's sleeping patterns. (It has actually been well documented while researching the fruit fly. Bet you weren't expecting that.)

"There is a theory that you have one type of PER gene, then you are more of a night owl. Whereas if you have another type of PER, you are an early bird," Banerjee said. "There has been of lot of research into the genes of fruit flies on this, and whether [a similar process] applies in humans."

What makes this research interesting is whether or not being a night owl or early bird could affect your day-to-day life and, particularly, performance at work. Or, more accurately, whether it would be possible to cater for people's sleeping preferences depending on their PER genes.

There are a lot of people who are naturally night owls who are getting rostered for a 4am shift, and unsurprisingly, it's an absolute mess."

For instance, if you were a shift worker in possession of a certain PER gene which meant you were naturally an early riser, could this a) be identified and b) make you more suitable to work the early shift?

"Potentially, if you worked in an industry where do you shift work -- the mining industry or the police force, for example -- you could try to work out who would be fine for the early shift and who would be really struggling," Banerjee said. "Dependent on the type of PER gene they had.

"Because at present, there are a lot of people who are naturally night owls who are getting rostered for a 4am shift, and unsurprisingly it's an absolute mess."

But enough of fruit flies and clocks for now. Night owl or no, what's the best way to manage your sleep so you are at your best during the waking hours?

Not a morning person.
Not a morning person.

"Stability in the sleep clock is essential," Banerjee said. "I think even for those who have got a fairly stable sleep routine, if you put them in an environment where they have three early starts followed by three late starts followed by three night shifts followed by three days off -- which is quite common, actually -- you can expect to see a disruption in their circadian rhythm.

"This in turn can cause things like fatigue, mood disturbance, memory issues... you'll find you struggle after a while. Stability is key."

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