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The United States has snagged the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2017 thanks to the innovative work of three sleep researchers. A three-man team earned the award for analyzing how different organisms, including humans, adapt their biological rhythms as the planet rotates. Though we’ve known about circadian rhythms for decades, the specific natural process dictating sleep, hunger, hormones, and body temperature has remained a mystery – until now.
Using fruit flies as a model organism, this year’s Nobel Laureates were able to isolate two genes that play essential roles in managing our daily biological rhythms. By looking at the proteins encoded by these genes, known as “period” and “timeless,” they uncovered a continuous 24-hour cycle of oscillation. One of the genes encodes a protein that “accumulates at night and degrades during the day,” thus regulating the sleep/wake cycle.
An even more meaningful conclusion made by the trio is that living a lifestyle that’s out of sync with your natural clock can be detrimental to human health. The discovery of a link between these biological factors and a variety of diseases promises to provide scientists with new insights for fighting everything from schizophrenia to cancer. Isolating the genes responsible for circadian rhythms has far-reaching implications. Ultimately, it might even tell us how to avoid disease and engineer optimum health.
The Nobel Prize is awarded for discoveries that bring “the greatest benefit to mankind.” The rewarding of this accolade for sleep research underscores the vital role played by sleep in the human experience. No matter how much we try to hack sleep and minimize the hours we devote to rest, its importance prevails. Surely an upcoming wave of trends and tricks will play on this discovery, but those who prioritize old-fashioned sleep are sure to win out.
You only have to look as far as the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation to see how quickly a lack of sleep can make us sick. Conversely, the positive benefits of sufficient sleep are clear and well-documented. If you’ve been losing sleep, this Noble Prize should serve as one of many signs that it’s time to make a change. The quality and quantity of your sleep, after all, has been proven to make a difference over a lifetime, not just in the short term.
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