Can’t Sleep? Why Your Inner Clock May Be to Blame

Time—that essential feature of life that we can’t ever seem to get enough of—dictates how we go about each day and when we decide to call it quits. Apparently though, there may be more to keeping time than what the kitchen clock reads. New research out of the University of Texas at Dallas examines which genes might influence the timing of our daily routines and how these genes change with age.

Circadian What?
Scientists know that humans (and most animals for that matter) possess a set of “clock genes” that keep us on a 24-hour activity cycle—our circadian rhythm. These genes dictate a daily cascade of changes in temperature, hormone production, brain wave activity, etc., which influence our eating and sleeping schedules. So basically, clock genes are like your biological watch—there is a reason why stomach grumbling occurs when the clock strikes noon. As we age, however, these patterns get a bit out of whack.

The Findings
Researchers studied brain tissue samples from approximately 150 people and identified a number of clock genes that were unsynchronized in older people. In fact, researchers found as many as 1,000 of these genes, some of which weren’t active until later in life. Therefore, perhaps the brain has its own mechanism to compensate for the clock genes that “turn off” during late adulthood. Scientists suggest that these genes may be to blame for the disturbed sleep/wake cycles seen in seniors.

Looking Beyond Genetics
These findings provide some insight into why some diseases tend to appear later in life. For example, lack of sleep has been shown to increase the risk of both Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, though many other factors are likely involved.

Sleep aids may be an option to battle this age-related insomnia. However, sleeping pills and other options like melatonin can increase circadian disturbances in older adults, and side effects of these treatments tend to get worse with age. Instead, experts agree that behavioral therapy might be the best option for synchronizing one’s inner clock. Take a walk in the morning sunshine, stop eating after the evening news and avoid reading or doing work in bed. Be sure to check out the National Sleep Foundation’s tips, too.

We can’t change our genetic makeup, but understanding can be the first step to getting more zzzz’s.

(Feature photo courtesy of

Samantha Lunsky

Samantha Lunsky is an intern with the Healthy Aging Project, and a student in the Integrative Physiology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder.