Nature or Nurture?

The sleep research is clear. Some aspects of our sleep are decided by nature – our genetics, brain and body functioning, and chronotypes. Others are profoundly impacted by what you might call “nurture” – lifestyle, surroundings, and sleep circumstances. Typically, it’s been a lot easier to make changes to the external and situational factors than to the ones that are part of our biological makeup. But a 2015 discovery by researchers at Vanderbilt University promises to give us greater control over the “natural” forces that determine when and how well we’re able to sleep.

Your Other Biological Clock

You may already be familiar with the concept of chronotypes. Your chronotype – the pattern with which you sleep and wake – is determined by your circadian rhythms. It’s the reason some of us are proud early birds while others thrive as night owls. Some experts recommend planning our lives around our chronotypes so that we can achieve optimum performance in everything we do. But the previously mentioned sleep researchers have managed to find the reset button for the brain’s biological clock. By stimulating or suppressing neurons in the hypothalamus, they were able to change the sleep-wake cycles of mice — regardless of external cues of light and temperature. While it will take years to translate these findings into treatments for humans, the results are very promising.

Why Fight your Natural Rhythms?

To individuals living free from sleep disorders, messing with your brain’s natural settings might sound unnecessary or even foolish. The benefits of reprogramming chronotypes, however, could include neutralizing the adverse health effects of shift work, minimizing jet lag, and developing better treatments for seasonal affective disorder. For anyone who’s spent years coping with fatigue or insomnia because their daily circumstances don’t match their chronotypes, this development constitutes hope for an improved quality of life.

Are you fighting for sleep?

If you’re among the many Americans going to extraordinary means to stay awake each day, technology is advancing in your favor. But if your problems are being caused by your sleeping environment, you don’t have to wait for new scientific breakthroughs. The first thing to consider when you develop a new sleepiness problem is your sleeping space. Nail down your sleep hygiene and evaluate your nighttime environment. If you’ve slept like a log until recently, your bed could be to blame. Aches, pains, and exhaustion in the morning are the first signs that a mattress has passed its expiration date. Before you take on your biological programming, consider how you’ve been nurturing your sleeping self. If laying your head on a better bed doesn’t help, you’ll know something more complex is at play.

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