The Mind-Blowing Discovery About How We Sleep Could Get Us to Mars

If you can’t fall asleep at night, or hit snooze as many times as you can in the morning, you have company. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in three adults don’t get enough sleep. This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize for Medicine have new data that explains why that matters.

“As a nation we are not getting enough sleep,” said Wayne Giles, M.D., director of CDC’s Division of Population Health. “Lifestyle changes such as going to bed at the same time each night; rising at the same time each morning; and turning off or removing … devices from the bedroom, can help people get the healthy sleep they need.”

Making those changes is easier said than done. What you might not realize is the complex interplay between chemicals, proteins, and our environment that tell us when to sleep and wake. Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young recently earned the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine for determining that clock genes are involved in our bodies’ ability to properly and adequately signal sleepiness and wakefulness.

What are clock genes?

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2017 Nobel Prize Winner Michael Rosbash stands with fans after he addressed a news conference. | Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

The Genetic Literacy Project explained that a particular protein degrades during the day and accumulates at night. That allows for the physiological experience of alertness and sleepiness. The Nobel Prize award speech further detailed the findings. “Their discoveries explain how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.”

How important do these genes become in our everyday lives? Pretty central, it turns out. 

Circadian rhythms affect literally every aspect of our bodies

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Rockefeller University biologist Michael Young stands in his lab after winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Sleep cycle rhythms are “just as fundamental as respiration,” Charalambos Kyriacou, a molecular geneticist at the University of Leicester told Science Magazine. “There isn’t any aspect of biology that circadian rhythms aren’t important for. They are totally fundamental in a way that we didn’t anticipate.”

“Since the seminal discoveries by the three laureates,” the Nobel Assembly said in its press release, “circadian biology has developed into a vast and highly dynamic research field, with implications for our health and wellbeing.”
The three scientists used a surprising model to learn how our circadian biologies work.

 We’re really just flies on the wall, scientifically speaking

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US geneticists Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young (pictured) used fruit flies to shed light on the internal biological clock that governs the wake-sleep cycles of most living things. | Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

According to the Nobel Assembly’s press release, the four scientists isolated a gene that controls circadian rhythm using fruit fries as a model. “They identified additional protein components of this machinery, exposing the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell. We now recognize that biological clocks function by the same principles in cells of other multicellular organisms, including humans.”

Simpler life forms — like fruit flies and even one-celled organisms — developed circadian rhythms to get ahead of changes in their environments. That means they learned to predict everything from when their environment would get hotter (to avoid burning to death) to, eventually, the movements of their predators and prey.

Today, humans need these rhythms for more complex, but no less essential, reasons. 

What does sleep have to do with obesity? A lot, as it turns out.

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Circadian rhythms control obesity as well. | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

According to an article in Quartz, “circadian coordination allows female pituitaries and ovaries to match up when triggering ovulation; our pancreas, gut, and hypothalamus to link up to make us both hungry and ready to digest; and sleep to be timed to when our muscles are ready to cool down and enable healing, as well as when our brains are most free for maintenance and memory formation.”

Everything from artificial light, shift work, and that 2am post-party hamburger and fries affect that rhythm. That means obesity, cancer, and even Alzheimers all relate to circadian rhythms. “Because every part of our body has been imbued with an innate circadian rhythm to keep all the clocks ticking in sync, every piece of us is susceptible to circadian disruption,” Quartz pointed out.

If you find yourself working better at a certain time of day, that has its basis in this same biology. 

Focus and fertility: Two processes affected by your sleep

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Sleep cycles also affect focus and fertility. | Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images

The scientists discovered that a person’s fertility and focus, nutrition and aging, and even heart attacks, all relate to rest cycles. As Quartz explained, “New brain cells, synapses, sleep, and attention are all regulated by the time of day, so keeping a routine keeps them razor-sharp.” According to that publication, new information also carries a circadian time stamp. That means when you learn something, you’ll later recall it best at that same time of day.

Humans’ cardiac, endocrine and digestive systems also perform differently at different times. The body converts food into fat more easily at night, and the heart needs to rest at night. Most heart attacks occur in the morning, because the heart has to ramp up and sometimes, gets stressed out. As for sex drive, we all know it has a cyclical nature. Scientists discovered fertility peaks in the morning, too.

How you recover from travel also relates to these same processes. 

Jet lag affects more than your ability to enjoy vacation

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Jet lag has its roots in circadian rhythms, too. | James Morgan/Boeing Australia via Getty Images

As Quartz explains, putting your body into a new time of day affects how your organs function. This throws off all of your systems, so when you’re feeling sleepy, that’s just one symptom. This new research means not only can scientists figure out how to prevent jet lag, but help with sleep disorders too. “Misalignments in this system of clock genes is likely involved in diseases and disorders, and regularly impacts how many people function … and isn’t easily forceable into artificial reset by jumping timezones,” the Genetic Literacy Project pointed out.

Elon Musk will be excited to hear about the next circadian application. 

How do we sleep on Mars? Scientists have it almost figured out

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Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp, speaks during a news conference. | Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Elon Musk wants to send people to Mars by 2024. While many hurdles exist, these scientists may have the answer to one of them. Astronauts suffer from significant sleep disruptions while in space, because of the lack of sunlight. Since it will take several weeks to get to Mars, those travelers anticipate the same problems.

Air & Space Magazine proposed engineering solutions like “torpor-induced hibernation” among other options. A Mars “day” also lasts about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth. This means that every 10 days that elapse on Mars puts Earth travelers out of sync with Earth by about seven hours. This research can inform terrestrial habitat experiments that may help figure out how to deal with that difference.

While how much you sleep may seem like a minor annoyance, the Nobel Prize winners’ research shows it has a much broader impact. Although you can’t buy your ticket to Mars just yet, what we know about circadian science means we can make it more comfortable once you do get there. So, don’t forget to pack your pillow!

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