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Not A Morning Person?

Not A Morning Person?

Rub the sleep out of your eyes and start paying attention.  Hayden Selvadurai's here to tell you why you can't get out of bed in the morning.

For me, most mornings start with a bleary-eyed fumble to locate the snooze button on my alarm clock; a futile attempt to gain a few more minutes’ shuteye. It then takes about an hour - and half a litre of coffee - for me to get over the morning drowsiness and become a semi-functional human being. If this routine is unfamiliar to you, then chances are you’re one of those annoyingly chipper morning people that bugs the hell out of me. I’m the opposite.

Grudges aside, everyone’s sleeping habits fall somewhere on a continuum between early bird and night owl, with your position usually thought to be determined through some sort of biological conditioning. Thus, if I were able to regularly get out of bed at a reasonable hour, instead of seeing the wee hours in from under a mountain of work/pints, would I too be able to become a productive morning person?

Unfortunately, our sleeping habits are not that simple. While we still don’t fully
understand the reasons for sleep on a purely biological level, its necessity is undisputable. The effects of sleep deprivation are notable and familiar to most, exemplified well by the Channel 4 show Shattered a couple of years back, in which contestants forced to stay awake for up to a week complained of hallucinations, exhaustion and paranoia. More scientific versions of this sort of thing have led scientists to believe that sleep is likely to have important physiological roles such as growth and healing, as well as important cognitive roles such as memory consolidation.

Not just shut-eye
Sleep may not seem to be that complicated an issue – for most of us it’s simply a matter of eyes closing as the head hits the pillow – but it’s actually a complex biological phenomenon. Sleep, with all its myriad functions, is likely to be rooted in the activity of a vast number of genes. Your daily sleeping pattern, however, relies on a tightly regulated bunch of genes expressed deep within a part of your brain known as the hypothalamus - a region essential for controlling basic biological needs such as hunger and thirst.

Various external signals, such as light, are sent to the hypothalamus which processes them and responds by switching on a series of genes in a specific pattern. It is this pattern of gene expression that tells your body when you should be asleep, and when you should be up and at ‘em. When you put it all together, you have a body clock.

Your body clock is also the reason why you may feel like the living dead for a good couple of days after coming off a long plane flight from the other side of the world (that’s aside from the fact you were kept awake for 12 hours straight crammed into a small seat next to a snoring fat guy and a crying baby). Jet lag is a good example of your body’s normal response to a new set of light cues and the subsequent resetting of your biological clock to the local environment. Normally, our body clock genes (which include such originally named gems as Period, Cycle and, my own personal favourite, Clock) follow a strict circadian expression pattern. But when you expose yourself to a new set of light cues, like after getting off a flight from London to New Zealand, this expression pattern becomes disrupted and essentially has to restart itself.

So what makes a morning person?
If you feel a little less perky - grumpy, some might say - when you have to make it out of bed before 8am, it might be the fault of your genes. It’s now acknowledged that variation in the expression of body clock genes can account for things like your preferred wake up time, or how you respond to sleep deprivation. Mutations in a gene called Period 2 have been associated with extreme morning person behaviour (technically ‘advance sleep phase syndrome’), a disorder where people get tired early in the evening and wake up early in the morning.

Genetic components have been identified for a number of similar sleep disorders, and for other traits such as how you deal with lack of sleep. So it doesn’t seem that far fetched to assume that the continuum between morning people and night people has a degree of genetic determinism, meaning that I may be incapable of ever becoming an effective morning achiever. However, as is the case with most traits that involve a complicated gene-environment interaction, the full picture is unlikely to be this simple.

My inability to wake up on time in the mornings can’t be explained by genetics alone. It’s a culmination of my genetic make up, biological conditioning and environmental factors. Does this mean I can change the habit of a lifetime and get out of bed on time in the mornings? Possibly. Am I going to try? Hell no. I like sleeping in too much.

Other questions for sleepy people:
- Age old mystery - Can you catch a yawn? Seems that way
- Dopey dogs - Is it just humans who are narcoleptics? Nope
- Bizarre - How sleepy am I really? Spit and find out

- Snoozy newsy - Does the early bird really catch the worm? Apparently

Image: woodsy

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09 Aug 2010
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