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The Biology of Chronobiology

Photo by: Alan Cleaver (Flickr)
Your chronobiology is your body's natural alarm clock.

Are you a morning person or a night owl? Or are you one of the many who believe that there is no such thing as morning people and night people? If you are the latter, a non-believer, I am going to break it to you gently that you are wrong. Recent studies have proven that there is such a thing as morning people and night owls, and what makes this a biological fact is our "chronobiology." What's chronobiology, you ask? Read on.

Our individual "chronotype" is what dictates whether we are day people or night people. Your chronotype is your circadian rhythm, and your circadian rhythm is your internal body clock. If you have ever suffered from jet lag, you have felt the disruptions to your circadian rhythm. Some people even feel a disruption to it during daylight saving time. This is because your circadian rhythm is when your body tells you to wake up and go to bed, and forcing it outside of this natural rhythm causes difficulty.

People whose circadian rhythm is driven by the sunlight -- they wake up once it is daylight and become naturally tired once the sun goes down -- are morning people. If you are an "early to bed, early to rise" person, your individual chronotype make you a morning person. Some of us have a circadian rhythm that runs off the norm, however, whether naturally or by force, i.e., you are a nurse working the night shift. People who are awake and more functional during the night are night owl chronotypes.

Morning chronotypes find working 9 to 5 to be the best time of the day for them to perform their job duties. They have zero trouble getting up for work, often accomplishing things in the early morning hours, and are rarely bothered by "springing forward" during daylight saving time. Night people find it difficult to wake up for a daytime job, work better later in the day, and struggle with the hour jump in the spring. Sleep experts call this phenomenon "social jet lag" because night owls do not function at their best during daytime hours, when everyone else is active and social. Social jet lag really isn't a phenomenon at all, however.

You see, each cell in our body carries our chronobiology, and your chronotype affects your brain's functionality. If you are functioning outside of your body's natural chronotype, which in most cases means you're a night person working a day job, you are prone to weight gain, sleep apnea, and higher levels of stress hormones. Night owls also tend to suffer more from depression than morning people. If you cannot work the night shift in your job, this can be extremely frustrating because you have a genuine biological struggle that you deal with every day and businesses aren't scheduling their people per their chronotype -- at least not yet, anyway! There are ways to cope, however, whether you are a night person working a day job or vice versa.

If your chronobiology puts forth your best self during the daylight hours but you're assigned to the night shift at the hospital, try to regulate your eating and sleeping patterns as best you can. It's important to treat your day as your night and your night as your day. You must designate regular breakfast, lunch, and dinner hours throughout the night and sleep during the same daytime hours every day, whether you are on duty or have the following night off. This is hard, especially if you have a family and daytime responsibilities. To minimize the effects of working outside of your natural chronobiology, however, you need to maintain a schedule.

Night owls need to get more daylight to switch their nighttime chronobiology to daytime chronobiology. Getting out in the sunshine pushes your chronobiology forward, encouraging your body to actually want to go to sleep earlier and earlier. It will be a struggle at first, but the sun actually helps your cells adjust to a more "early to bed, early to rise" pattern; your body will begin to react to the sun and awaken when the sun rises and become tired when the sun sets. Be careful, however, because it's easy to slip back into your night owl pattern if you stay up too late watching TV or surfing the Internet. Set a bedtime and stick to it.

Both chronotypes, and those of you who fall in between, will find that "falling back" in the fall will help you no matter what. New studies have shown that daylight saving time, although good for the environment and a lot of fun because we get extra daylight later into the evening, affects our chronobiology and we all get relief from that extra hour of sleep we gain in the fall. I'm a firm believer that this is because during standard time, the sun rises earlier in the morning and sets earlier in the day, which is natural to most of our body clocks!

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