Delayed sleep syndrome versus insomnia

LOS ANGELES

The life of a medical student can be pretty hectic. Getting sleep is difficult, but Michelle Emerson has always felt out of sync.

"I once thought that if the whole world just shifted two hours later, so everything started at 10 instead of 8 and finished at 7 instead of 5, then it would just fit perfectly into my natural body clock," says Emerson.

She thought it was a strange insomnia, but doctors diagnosed her with delayed sleep syndrome.

Experts say 15 percent of those diagnosed with insomnia actually suffer from the disorder. DSS means your body clock is consistently two hours behind everyone else. It makes it hard to fall asleep and difficult to get up in the morning.

"People feel very frustrated that they can't get off to sleep, and then they can't wake up to go to school or university or work, so there are high rates of depression," says Ron Grunstein, Woolcock Institute of Medical Research.

Doctors are at a loss to explain the exact cause of delayed sleep syndrome, but suspect it is a dysfunction of the body's internal clock.

Now Australian researchers are conducting a study to look specifically at patients suffering from this condition and to find out if the sleep hormone melatonin can help.

"We expect that the melatonin treatment will have fairly major improvements in how people sleep. It will let them wake up earlier and function better in the mornings," says Grunstein.

Michelle Emerson is participating in the trial but says just finding out what was going on with her sleep patterns was healing in itself.

"It's when someone puts a name to it and suggests a treatment for it that that little bit of hope you know that maybe it can be changed," says Emerson.

About 300 patients will take part in the trial.

Melatonin is available over the counter and is a well-known sleep aid.

Researchers are also looking at genetic markers involved with delayed sleep syndrome.

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