Coming to terms with your natural sleep inclinations can bring positive change to your life.
The early bird catches the worm. Bright eyed and bushy tailed. Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
We belong to a culture that prizes morningness and subtly chastises those who like to stay up late and sleep in. Which is really quite Puritan of us because in truth, whether you’re chirping like a lark at dawn or hooting like an owl at midnight largely comes down to a matter of genetics.
We are more or less divided into morning and night people; and that is set by our genes, says neurogeneticist Dr. Louis Ptacek of University of California. Ptacek and his colleague, Dr. Chris Jones, have been studying people’s chronotypes – a person’s propensity to sleep at a particular time – and found shared genetic traits in family groups of morning people (larks) and evening people (owls).
It's all related to our circadian rhythm, the internal clock that the body relies on to schedule certain functions. This master clock is made up of thousands of nerve cells in the suprachiasmatic nucleus which lives at the base of the brain in the hypothalamus. Each day this internal clock is reset by light; but even though the dawning of light on the planet happens consistently, our individual clocks don’t run alike from person to person. Hence, larks and owls.
"If you have a fast clock you like to do things early, and if you have a slow clock you like to do things late," says Professor Derk-Jan Dijk, Head of the University of Surrey's Sleep Research Centre.
Scientists have come to recognize the importance of understanding one’s chronotype; and just knowing that this is a matter of genes – not a measure of eagerness or laziness – is a boon in and of itself. But genetics or not, much of western society is based around daylight-centered productivity, which means night owls get the short end of the stick.
Researchers have been mulling the implications of the lark lifestyle versus the owl’s to try and tease out which chronotype comes with the most benefits.
Some studies are a bit of a mixed bag – offering a variety of findings on how being a night owl or a morning person can impact a person’s life, writes Erinn Hutkin for the San Diego Union Tribune. Here are some of the findings she describes:
Researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada completed a study that indicated morning people’s strength tends to stay steady throughout the day – not just peak early – but night owls have peak performance during the evenings.
A study done at the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine in Germany found when night owls follow the same time schedules as morning people, there’s a tendency to develop Seasonal Affective Disorder or depression.
Researchers at the University of Liege in Belgium conducted a study where night owls and morning people competed against each other to measure reaction and attention times. When given a task shortly after waking up, both groups did well, but 10 hours after their days began, the night owls were better at completing assigned tasks and were quicker and more alert.
You probably already know which camp of birds you fall into; if you have any doubt, you can take a quiz to find out. And while knowing one way or the other may not make that much of a difference if you are tied to a strict schedule, knowledge can at least make life more clear. Working with your chronotype can lead to better productivity and better sleep, potentially even eliminating the need for sleep aids and other assorted quick fixes. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Know that some who experience insomnia may be suffering from circadian-rhythm abnormality.
- If you are an owl and can shift your work hours to later in the day, you will likely be more productive.
- If you are an owl and can’t switch your schedule around, try to be strategic about light exposure: Professor Till Roenneberg of Ludwig-Maximilians University tell the BBC, "You should try to go to work not in a covered vehicle but on a bike. The minute the sun sets we should use things that have no blue light, like computer screens and other electronic devices."
- Larks looking to shift their sleeping to later can try spending time outside in the afternoon or early evening, as well as increasing general evening activity. Also try sleeping with black-out drapes.
- Owls are advised to sleep with blinds or curtains open, and let daylight do the job of an alarm clock.
- If you're a lark and are able to nap, optimal napping time is around 1:00 p.m. or 1:30 p.m.
- If you're an owl, your afternoon napping window for ultimate rejuvenation is 2:30 p.m. or 3:00 p.m.
- Don’t get mad at sleepyhead teens. Research shows that late sleeping of the teen set is a real thing. Kids sleep later and later throughout childhood and reach peak lateness at 19 and a half for women and 21 for men.
Are you an early bird or a night owl? Do you have tricks to help cope with a life that doesn't match your bird style?