You Can Figure Out Your Circadian Rhythm With a Blood Test Now

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Night owls and morning larks are born that way.

If you're a night owl, then friends, family members, doctors, teachers and bosses may all have told you that your tireness is your fault. But soon, you may be able to take a blood test that proves them wrong.

Everyone has a body clock, or a circadian rhythm. These rhythms keep track of the 24 hour day, telling cells when to do what. Over the past few years, scientists have discovered something curious: circadian rhythms aren't just in the brain. They're in every cell in the body.

"They're not driven by light-dark cycles; instead, these rhythms are generated at a molecular level. This circadian clock system exists in every single cell of the human body and is regulated by a core clock genetic mechanism," said Phyllis Zee, a researcher at Northwestern University who studies circadians rhythms.

Circadian rhythms do a lot, but they're particularly well known for telling people when to feel awake and when to feel tired.

"There are also more than 10 “clock genes” that reside in the nucleus of cells and produce proteins that determine whether you are a 'night owl' or 'morning lark'," added Zee. “How quickly these proteins get degradated in the cytoplasm determines whether you're going to be an owl or a lark. So if you're an owl, it is because your clock genetic system is taking a little slower than the 24-hour cycle. If you're a lark (your clock) is probably going a little faster. That's why larks wake up early, because they finished that circadian cycle, that molecular circadian cycle, a little faster than the rotation of the earth on its axis around the sun."

Yep. Night owls (cough) aren't trying to stay up late, and morning larks aren't getting up early because they're so responsible. The code for waking up early or late is plugged into every cell in a person's body. If your body clock doesn't fit society's expectations of when to wake up for school or work, then you're in trouble.

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© Pretty Vectors/Shutterstock

"Typical patients are younger adults who have had problems sleeping since their teenage years. Many cannot fall asleep until after 2 a.m." says Northwestern's website. "They can't wake up in time for school or work and many end up being diagnosed with mental health issues such as depression or anxiety." Around 15 percent of teens suffer from this "disorder," although many more teens are somewhere on the spectrum because teens are simply programmed to wake up later than adults.

Since these rhythms are programmed throughout the body, you can determine someone's circadian rhythm just by looking at a few cells. That's why Zee and her colleagues were able to develop a simple blood test for circadian rhythms.

Other scientists have developed circadian rhythm blood tests before, but these tests were complicated, requiring patients to take blood tests around the clock. This one is a much simpler — just one test — making it actually feasible for patients.

The scientists say this new test could help doctors personalize medicine. Now, doctors might be able to tell each individual patent what time they should take their medication for maximum effectiveness.

Although as I see it, this test has much more complicated implications than that. Right now, if you have an unusual circadian rhythm, society imagines you're faking it — you're not getting enough sleep because you're staying up on purpose. But if you can take a blood test that tells you exactly when your body does what, then you have proof. Suddenly, making teens wake up for school after getting only a few hours of sleep starts to seem cruel (fun fact: that's why the CIA uses sleep deprivation to interrogate people).

Right now, doctors medicate night owls with pills, light therapy and other band-aids. But nothing will "fix" a night owl, because night owls aren't broken. They're born that way, down to the cellular level, and they'd be perfectly healthy if authority figures wouldn't demand they wake up at times that deprive them of sleep. Why should night owls have to live in a world designed for morning larks? If we can measure our differences, then maybe it's time to start accounting for them.