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Time to Reset Your Internal Clock

So I answer the door at 10:30 this morning and suffer the UPS guy's stinging disdain, because while he's been hard at work for hours, I'm still bleary-eyed and pj-clad at this scandalous hour of the day.

I tell myself to shrug it off, as I rub the sleep from my eyes and squint at the form he's asked me to sign. After all, I worked last night until 1 a.m., and didn't get to bed until 2. Subtract the hour it took me to fall asleep, and by the time his urgent knocking startled me from my dreams, I'd probably had less sleep than he did.

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It wouldn't matter to him. He knew what was up here; he had a layabout, a sluggard, one of those pale, baggy-eyed night people on his hands.

Syncopated Rhythm

To tell you the truth, I can't really blame him. I detest waking, achy and dazed, hours after the rest of the world has hit its stride. It makes you feel wooly-headed and detached from your surroundings. It makes you feel lazy and left behind.

I know there are many out there like me — natural night owls whose only crime is to sleep out of synch with our bushy-tailed peers. They call us lay-a-beds; they call us idlers; but here's a newsflash, Bub: We're not lazy at all, see, we're just more attuned to our natural rhythms than you are.

That's what Dr. Clerk told me, as part of the all-inclusive head-to-toe sleep study he performed on me at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic. He'd already diagnosed a breathing problem that disrupted my sleep cycles (upper airway resistance syndrome), and the way I'd conditioned myself not to fall asleep (psychophysiological insomnia). And now he was ready to put a name to my late sleep/wake cycle: He called it Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome and said it was caused by a problem with my biological clock.

Setting Back the Internal Clock

Yes, we all have biological clocks that tell our bodies when to sleep and when to rise. It's made up of a tiny bundle of nerve cells in the hypothalamus region of the brain, which scientists affectionately call the suprachiasmatic nucleus. This is one amazing little timepiece: waterproof, self-winding, remarkably precise. (You can actually snip it out whole, store it in a petrie dish, and it will still keep perfect time.)

The only problem with this brain-bound Bulova is that it measures 25 hours in a day. (Researchers call this a "circadian" rhythm, which means roughly "something that lasts about as long as a day.")

And it's not a small problem. If we let that inner clock rule, our bedtimes, according to the 24-hour external clock we must live by, would slip back one hour each night. We'd sleep, and wake, later and later and later. What a disaster! People would be lunching at night and bowling at dawn. And forget about trying to find the cable guy altogether.

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Fortunately, certain regular external cues — the alarm clock, dinnertime, the cycle of day and night — seem to naturally turn back the hands of the clock to keep our inner rhythms in synch with the hours of the geophysical day.

But for some folks, including guess who, the reset mechanism doesn't function; as a result, we drift further and further out of step with the world around us, as we wake and sleep faithfully to the inner rhythms of the 25-hour day.

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A Faulty Sleep Switch

And that's the final piece of the puzzle: a faulty reset button. And a fascinating piece it is, because it could be the first cause in the genesis of my slumber problems.

Imagine, first came my naturally late sleep/wake cycle, which kept me awake all hours and left me wasted when I forced myself out of bed. Second, as I struggled to change by turning in at "normal" hours, I'd only toss and turn, a frustrating routine that ruined my faith in my ability to sleep and spawned the "psychophysiological insomnia" I talked about earlier.

And finally, as if my sleeping life were not enough of a shipwreck already, I developed a breathing problem that disrupts my sleep and drains its restorative powers.

(You thought I was kidding when I said earlier that as a slumber artist, I'm something of a washout.) But now, thanks to Dr. Clerk and his cronies, I'm armed with the knowledge I need to change my sleep for the better. Lose a little weight, he says, and the breathing thing should ease; practice some common-sense sleep habits, and the insomnia should dissolve. As for the glitchy sleep clock? He wants me to stare at a light box, glowing at 10,000 lux (bright enough almost to give you a tan) for 30 minutes every morning. This brilliant bombardment, he says, should do what subtler cues have been unable to manage and shift my natural bedtime to an earlier hour.

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