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Early Bird Or Night Owl? Genes vs Environment

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A Sliding Slope?

In Tuesday’s newsletter, we asked you how much control you believe we have over our sleep schedule, and got the above-depicted, below-described, set of responses:

  • 45% said “most people can control it; some people with sleep disorders cannot
  • 35% said “our genes predispose us to early/late, but we can slide it a bit
  • 15% said: “going against our hardwired sleep schedules is a road to ruin”
  • 5% said “anyone can adjust their sleep schedule with enough willpower”

You may be wondering: what’s with those single-digit numbers in the graph there? And the answer is: Tuesday’s email didn’t go out at the usual time due to a scheduling mistake (sorry!), which is probably what affected the number of responses (poll response levels vary, but are usually a lot higher than this).

Note: yes, this does mean most people who read our newsletter don’t vote. So, not to sound like a politician on the campaign trail, but… Your vote counts! We always love reading your comments when you add those, too—often they provide context that allow us to tailor what we focus on in our articles 😎

However, those are the responses we got, so here we are!

What does the science say?

Anyone can adjust their sleep with enough willpower: True or False?

False, simply. It’s difficult for most people, but for many people with sleep disorders, it is outright impossible.

In a battle of narcolepsy vs willpower, for example, no amount of willpower will stop the brain from switching to sleep mode when it thinks it’s time to sleep:

❝Narcolepsy is the most common neurological cause of chronic sleepiness. The discovery about 20 years ago that narcolepsy is caused by selective loss of the neurons producing orexins sparked great advances in the field

[There is also] developing evidence that narcolepsy is an autoimmune disorder that may be caused by a T cell-mediated attack on the orexin neurons and explain how these new perspectives can inform better therapeutic approaches.❞

~ Dr. Carrie Mahoney et al. (lightly edited for brevity)

Source: The neurobiological basis of narcolepsy

For further reading, especially if this applies to you or a loved one:

Living with Narcolepsy: Current Management Strategies, Future Prospects, and Overlooked Real-Life Concerns

Our genes predispose us to early/late, but we can slide it a bit: True or False?

True! First, about our genes predisposing us:

Genome-wide association analysis of 89,283 individuals identifies genetic variants associated with self-reporting of being a morning person

…and also:

Gene distinguishes early birds from night owls and helps predict time of death

Now, as for the “can slide it a bit”, this is really just a function of the general categories of “early bird” and “night owl” spanning periods of time that allow for a few hours’ wiggle-room at either side.

However, it is recommended to make any actual changes more gradually, with the Sleep Foundation going so far as to recommend 30 minutes, or even just 15 minutes, of change per day:

Sleep Foundation | How to Fix Your Sleep Schedule

Going against our hardwired sleep schedule is a road to ruin: True or False?

False, contextually. By this we mean: our “hardwired” sleep schedule is (for most of us), genetically predisposed but not predetermined.

Also, genetic predispositions are not necessarily always good for us; one would not argue, for example, for avoiding going against a genetic predisposition to addiction.

Some genetic predispositions are just plain bad for us, and genes can be a bit of a lottery.

That said, we do recommend getting some insider knowledge (literally), by getting personal genomics tests done, if that’s a viable option for you, so you know what’s really a genetic trait (and what to do with that information) and what’s probably caused by something else (and what to do with that information):

Genetic Testing: Health Benefits & Methods

Take care!

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