Written by Anna Marr. Graphics by Eleanor Wales.
Dr. Phyllis Zee: Women’s History Month Sleep Leaders Part 1
Meet Dr. Phyllis Zee!
Phyllis Zee, MD, PhD, is a renowned leader in the sleep field, particularly in the area of circadian rhythm science and medicine. She is the Director for the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine, the Chief of Sleep Medicine in the Department of Neurology, and a Professor of Neurology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois. Most recently, she is the recipient of the Sleep Research Society’s 2020 Distinguished Scientist Award.
What are “circadian rhythms?” Circadian rhythms are internal cycles that keep a time of approximately 24 hours. One of the most important is the sleep-wake cycle.
Dr. Zee is the founder of the first U.S. circadian medicine clinic providing innovative approaches to diagnose and treat people with circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders. Her research focuses on the effects of age on sleep and circadian rhythms, genetic regulation of circadian sleep disorders, and behavioral interventions to improve sleep and performance. Currently, her lab is studying the effects of circadian-sleep-based interventions, like exercise, bright light, and feed-fast schedules, on cognitive, cardiovascular, and metabolic functions and their potential to delay cardiometabolic aging and neurodegeneration.
Dr. Zee’s research has also explored sleep quality and patterns in underrepresented minority populations and health disparities caused by poor sleep, socioeconomic and environmental factors, and accessibility of treatment.
In 2018, she was part of a team that developed the first simple blood test to identify individuals’ precise internal clock times. Her clinic is paving a path for patients to receive specific treatments tailored to their circadian rhythm.
“I actually see physiology in play and I can say, ‘I think your melatonin rhythm is going to be at 4 a.m. instead of 9 p.m. Let’s sample this. Let’s take a look at this!’… You feel like every day you’re discovering something.”
-Phyllis Zee via Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine
Dr. Zee believes sleep and circadian science holds potential beyond the sleep field.
“In the future, I see the development of biomarkers of sleep and circadian rhythms, and their use to assess health and disease, as well as to optimize the timing of treatments.”
Currently, Dr. Zee is President-Elect of the World Sleep Society. Furthermore, she serves on the Sleep Research Society’s Advocacy Task Force, where she shares her scientific expertise with policymakers and advocates alongside other researchers and Project Sleep’s patient advocates to advance sleep research and awareness at a national level.
“Advocating alongside Dr. Zee is a huge honor,” describes Julie Flygare, President & CEO of Project Sleep. “Not only is her passion for the science energizing, but her belief in the importance of the patient voice is hugely impactful for me. I imagine I am just one of many who look up to Dr. Zee as a sleep superstar and incredible role model.”