Ah, sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care. Great when you can get it. A blight on productivity when you can't.

It's tough to manage even a slight shift in hours, like the semiannual shift to and from daylight savings time. But what do you do when you're permanently out of sync? Night owls know well the pain of being expected comply with Benjamin Franklin's early to bed, early to rise regimen when you find yourself up late, winding down about the time many are winding up for the coming day.

Wait a minute before blaming yourself. A new study from researchers at the Rockefeller University and Weill Cornell Medical College suggests that the habitually time-shifted may be the subject of a mutation of the CRY1 gene, which is linked to the circadian cycle -- the 24-hour rhythm of sleep and wakefulness found in many animals, plants, and even some bacteria.

In a normal body, a number of genes turn on and off at various times to regulate our daily activity. The CRY1 gene usually helps govern the activity of these other genes. But in the mutation, CRY1 is active for longer periods, skewing the timing. The result is delayed sleep phase disorder, or DSPD, in which the 24-hour clock becomes delayed. As many as 1 in 75 people may have a copy of the mutated gene, which is dominant.

If you're a true night owl, you may have developed compensating behaviors, like scheduling meetings late or working from home. There can be clear benefits, such as having the world sleeping around you when you're being creative and productive. However, there's still the often the nagging need to deal with the rest of humanity.

Knowing you have the mutation doesn't change anything, other than potentially giving you an explanation. But, according to the researchers, as well as other authorities, there are things you can do to stay on a more conventional schedule:

  • Avoid alcohol and stimulants like coffee and nicotine, particularly late in the day. Alcohol can help you doze only to reverse its actions in a few hours. Coffee and nicotine can keep you from falling asleep in the first place and then wake you periodically. If you use prescription medicines that are stimulants, like asthma inhalers, talk to your doctor about strategies to control their effect on your sleep.
  • Enforce a strict schedule. You want waking and sleeping at particular hours to become a habit. Don't sleep in and make sure you're ready to head to bed at a reasonable hour.
  • Cut the naps. This is a particularly painful suggestion for some people, but they can help disrupt your schedule. If your body needs sleep at the end of the day, it will be easier to obtain it.
  • Get regular exercise, though not right before bedtime. Tire yourself out.
  • Avoid eating or drinking right before bed, or your digestive system could crank up and keep you awake.
  • Control your sleeping environment. Ensure a dark room (with blackout curtains or a sleep mask if necessary) and control temperature and noise levels so you can drift off comfortably.
  • Practice relaxation techniques before going to bed to help reduce stress.