Why Being a Night Owl is Hazardous to Your Health

What can mice and fruit flies teach us about the dangers of being a night owl?  Quite a bit, according to the research of biological sciences professor Behzad Varamini.

Since completing his Ph.D in nutritional science from Cornell University in 2009, Varamini has been interested in the ways that natural circadian (daily) rhythms of light, dark, and sleep affect overall health.  As a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, Varamini’s laboratory research focused on nutrient regulation and metabolism.  Returning to the University of Pennsylvania every summer to continue on-going research projects, Varamini’s latest interest focuses on how circadian rhythms of light and dark affect metabolism.

Looking at the issue on the gene-expression level, Varamini’s research (using mice and fruit flies) seems to agree with what doctors have known for decades: that “humans who choose to rebel against nature’s created order of day and night cycles endure havoc.”

People who work night shifts and sleep during the day or insomniacs who are awake at night are far more likely to be overweight and obese as well as more prone to depression, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s, said Varamini.

Varamini’s research looks at how environmental causes, like light, affect how bodies process food.  If two people eat the same exact diet but one goes to bed earlier and the other is a night owl, for example, the person who goes to bed earlier will probably store their calories less as fat and burn calories better than the night owl.  Eating calories within an 18-hour window or midnight snacking causes more energy to be stored as fat than eating in a 12-hour window.

“What’s clear is the more we can align our behaviors with the cycles of nature and with life cycles, the healthier we are,” said Veramini, whose work with fruit flies shows that disrupting their sleep impairs memory, accelerates aging, and shortens lifespan by half.

Through a directed research class on gene expression, Varamini has involved six Biola students in his experiments with fruit flies.  He hopes to have them submit an abstract for a presentation on the research at Experimental Biology, an annual conference being held this year in San Diego.  A longer-term goal is to publish something on the research and have Biola students’ names on the paper, something that can help get them into competitive graduate programs.

Veramini’s research has practical health implications but, also, spiritual resonance.  The fact that God made days with a certain 24-hour length and that our bodies are so wired to thrive on that precise rhythm shows that we are made for this world, he says.

“What has been made clear is that rebelling against the created order wreaks physical havoc,” Veramini said.  “Living ‘in sync’ with the created order, sleeping and eating at set times, leads to physiological harmony – rebellion leads to accelerated disease and death.”

From: “Laboratory Stories” by Brett McCracken in Biola Magazine: The Magazine of Biola University (Winter, 2016), p. 31.

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