National Geographic News
A woman drinks coffee at a campsite at Sixty Lake Basin.
A woman drinks her morning coffee at a California campsite (file photo).

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Rachel Kaufman

for National Geographic News

Published August 23, 2010

Early bird or late riser? The mysteries of your sleep cycle may be unlocked by the hairs on your head, a new study says.

That's because the genes that regulate our body clocks can be found in hair-follicle cells, researchers have discovered.

(See "Secrets of Sleeping Soundly Uncovered.")

A tiny portion of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus controls the human body clock, and RNA strands—protein-building chains of molecules—process these signals throughout the body in 24-hour cycles. (Get a genetics overview.)

Predicting Morning People

RNA strands containing the clock genes are found throughout the body—including in white blood cells and the inside of the mouth—but human hair is easiest for scientists to test.

So Makoto Akashi, of the Research Institute for Time Studies at Yamaguchi University in Japan, and colleagues pulled head and beard hairs from four test subjects at three-hour intervals for a full day. The subjects had already reported their preferred schedules for waking up and eating, among other lifestyle choices. (Take National Geographic magazine's sleep quiz.)

The test day occurred after the subjects had rigorously adhered to their preferred schedules for nine days—in other words, the morning people woke up early every day, and the late sleepers woke up late every day.

When the researchers tested the genes in the subjects' follicles, they found that body-clock gene activity peaked right after a subject had woken up, regardless of whether it was 6 a.m. or 10 a.m.

This suggests that the brain "turns on" the genes at different times of the morning in different people.

Other clock genes followed similar patterns, making it possible to predict "morning people" with just a pluck, the study said.

"Clock Gene" Tests to Give Health Warnings?

While most people may already know if they prefer to sleep in or wake up early, the new research might also provide insights into human health, researchers say. (See a human-body interactive.)

Disorders of the body clock have been implicated in high blood pressure, diabetes—even cancer. (Read about why we sleep in National Geographic magazine.)

The researchers also studied the hairs of rotating shift workers, who are at greater risk for body-clock disorders, for three weeks. Over that amount of time, the workers alternated from an early work shift (6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.) to a late shift (3:00 p.m. to midnight).

But the three-week period wasn't enough time for the workers' internal clocks to readjust, according to measurements of follicle genes.

Even though the workers' lifestyle was shifted by seven hours, the clock-gene activity in their follicles shifted by only two hours—suggesting shift workers live in a state of jet lag, the study said.

The follicle test could be used to develop "working conditions that do not disturb clock function" by building in enough time to adjust, the authors wrote.

A noninvasive check for a clock disorder could serve as an early warning system, Akashi said: "I hope that our method will be used for regular health checks in schools and companies to keep healthy clocks."

The study appears August 24 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Alvin  Ray
Alvin Ray

May I suggest they neglected to mention the power of food that we eat to affect how your hair looks. The article does make some valid points, but  proper rest and dieting should not be neglected by anyone seeking lustrous hair.

Larry P
Larry P

Thats some intersting research. Hair tells so much about a person including his dietary habits. Thats why you need to take <a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">care</a> of it

Marisa Garcia
Marisa Garcia

great article, never new that. With national geo I keep learning more and more


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »