July 5, 2009

night owls get a name and a test

One evening while walking along a pasture, I looked across toward a giant live oak tree. In the tree sat three large owls. They were perched on two branches, all in a cluster. They made the most picturesque silouette. Still as statues, all facing east, the sun setting behind them. Three sentinels waiting for the darkness to decend, harbingers of a post I had been working on about night owls.

I have long believed I am a night owl. Or as sleep experts would now say, I suffer from
Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS).

"Delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) is a disorder in which a person’s sleep is delayed by 2 or more hours beyond the socially acceptable or conventional bedtime. This delay in falling asleep causes difficulty in waking up at the desired time...Most with DSPS describe themselves as "night owls" and say they function best or are most alert during the evening or night hours. If they were to keep a sleep log it would show short sleep periods during the school/work week (with few or no awakenings during the night) and lengthy sleep-ins (late morning to mid afternoon wake up times) on the weekend."

I can remember struggling with insomnia when I was in grade school, lying awake at night singing to my menagerie of stuffed animals. In high school, the singing was replaced by listening to late night radio, The Dr. Dimento Show being one of them. Due to my difficulty waking in the mornings, I was often late to school despite a five minute walk.

It seemed to become more pronounced over time. In college, as I chose my courses (no morning classes, thank you). In graduate school, I wrote the bulk of my dissertation between 10pm and 4am.

When I was offered a job in a psychiatric hospital I was told by the HR staff: "The only problem is that the hours are 4pm-10pm."

Problem? What problem? I loved it. I earned extra pay for late shift, even. I left my job in plenty of time to hit the college pubs, which really didn't get hopping until 11pm anyway. Close the place down and sleep in. Ahhhhhhh. Fit me to a tee.

I recall feeling energetic during this period of my life. I exercised enthusiastically. Typically a walker, I started to jog.

I knew this nirvana night schedule couldn't last forever, though. Eventually I did a one year internship at a medical setting, for example. It required the standard 8am-5pm hours. Oh dread. It about killed me.

But I was hopeful, deciding this was a good experiment: early morning wake up call, everyday, for a whole year. While it did get a bit more tolerable once I caved to the earlier bedtimes, it never, ever, EVER, felt easy. Or natural. I hated mornings as much as always.

So this confirmed night owl wasn't exactly surprised when she learned that researchers identified a particular gene, a mutation, they call it, that determines circadian rhythm. But she did feel vindicated. No, I'm not lazy. No, I wouldn't wake up easier if I'd just go to bed earlier. Okay, well maybe that one is true.

Naturally it's described as a mutation, rather than a variant of normal. But that's okay. I, and plenty of other night owls, have lived our lives feeling like we missed the normal boat.

Back to the gene. The night owl gene was first identified in a
mouse, and later in more mice.

This mutation was kindly named the "after hours gene" (AFh). Very aptly named, I would argue, since it's a universally accepted, scientifically verified truth that things happening "after hours" are way more fun and exciting than things happening, say, at 7am (snore).

Everyone wants an invitation to the after hours party, right?

And now one more giant step for night owls. It's been announced there is an official
test we can take, a simple mouth swab, to determine if we are, in fact, a morning lark or a night owl.

For more information about night owls, check out the DSPS blog.

Image source: owls, here.

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