Science Studies the Night Owl vs Early Bird Phenomenon
For years we’ve been told that we are either an early bird or night owl, with little information as to why. Early birds are those who greet the sun every morning, ready to go out and get the worm. Night owls are those lagging behind, preferring late nights to early morning meetings. Many a night owl has endured complaints from mothers, and possibly employers, for their late night habits and failure to wake up on time.
Many often view the distinction as personal choice, but what if being in a night owl was in fact inspired and determined by an individual’s very genes? In that case they would have a pretty substantial piece of evidence to present to their mothers, teachers, bosses and all those who, have for years, been giving them a hard time.
This is exactly with science is beginning to tell us. While we know many differences exist around the globe, there seems to be two distinct types of personalities when it comes to sleep-wake cycles.
The Early Bird
One type of personality seems to encourage the following behaviors:
- Daytime activities
- Early morning routines
- Naturally early wake up times
- Upbeat demeanor in the morning
These individuals are usually referred to as early birds, or “morning people”. This just so happens to be the same behaviors that parents try to instill into their children as they grow up; and that teachers encourage as well as a form of base for success, in a child’s future. This is because our society functions largely on the early bird’s schedule, with many jobs beginning around 8-9 am.
The Night Owl
However there are also people with nearly opposite behaviors that struggle to fit into the early lifestyle. These individuals tend to take part in the following behaviors:
- Naturally wake up late in the morning or in the afternoon
- Gains energy later in the day
- Focuses better in the afternoon or night time
- Have angry, irritated, or aggravated moods in the morning
- Prefer to work, play, and party in the evening
These individuals are usually referred to as “night owls”. This also happens to be the same behavior that parents discourage, and teachers say lead to an unsuccessful life. Science is beginning to tell us that whether someone takes part in the first set of behaviors, or the second set of behaviors, is merely represented and determined by a particular gene within the individual.
What Makes Us A Night Owl or Early Bird?
While environment and lifestyle habits play a role, several human behaviors are determined by genes. The recurrence of traits in families led to the pursuit of the notion that the circadian rhythms that act to regulate an individual’s sleeping patterns, may very well also be influenced by that individual’s genes.
A group of scientists which originate from the United States of America and Canada are believed to have finally identified the particular gene variant which controls individual sleep patterns. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center conducted the study, published in the Annals of Neurology last year. They were able to correlate a specific genetic variant to an individual’s preference in waking.
The Genetic Answer
Upon researching, scientists found that variations to particular gene dubbed PER1 which is part of a group that affects circadian rhythms, are also affecting circadian timing.
Research indicates that 60% of today’s population has a variant called Adenine. We will call this variant (A). 40% of today’s population houses a variant called Guanine. This we will call (G). The A variant is responsible for waking up early so to speak. While this G variant, is responsible for preferring to wake up later.
Remember that each human carries a DNA double helix. This means that each of us has two sets of DNA chromosomes. Further investigation concludes the following.
- Early Birds: two As will be found in 36% of people
- Night Owls: two Gs will be found in 16% of people
- In Between: both A and G will be found in 48% of people
Experiments involving test subjects concluded that individuals that carried a double (A) gene variant, were considered to be the early birds; And woke up just about 60 minutes earlier than individuals who possessed a double (G) gene variant. Leaving the last group, those with a combination of both an (A) gene variant and (G) gene variant seem to linger somewhere in between. While the times were not consistent, they did tend to stay near the meridian of both.
Other Implications for The Circadian Gene
The circadian rhythms are not only affecting the timing of our sleeping patterns, they also affect the timing of when individuals may die. These same (A) and (G) gene variants are also present when researching deaths, by time of day in individuals.
Research has even shown that individuals with genotypes of (AA) and (AG) are most likely to die during the early morning, around 11 AM. However individuals with a (GG) genotype have a much higher tendency to pass away during later times of day, around the 6 PM timeframe.
Genetics continues to reveal interesting information, answering some of the most difficult and perplexing human questions. While there is still much to research and learn about the genetics of sleep and behavior, next time someone criticizes you for turning in at 8pm like an early bird or for waking up late like a night owl, you can tell them its your genes!