Post No.: 0739
‘Morning larks’ find it most natural to get up and sleep early, whereas ‘night owls’ find it most natural to get up and sleep late. One’s ‘chronotype’ can be at either end of this scale or anywhere inbetween.
There are additional identified chronotypes but based not on one’s sleep times but alertness and energy levels – from those who experience either a midday slump or boost, and those who are either highly or not very active throughout the entire duration of each day.
Human ancestors faced numerous nocturnal predators and other threats, and homes were less secure than today’s modern brick houses with locked windows and doors and electronic alarm systems – thus it’s hypothesised that it most probably helped the community overall for a percentage of individuals to have evolved to be naturally night owls who guarded the group after dark. It even helps today because most burglars operate after nightfall. Well it could be the case that most night-time burglars today, and night-time raiders in ancestral times, are and were themselves night owls too!
It’s not about the amount of time each type wishes to sleep but when they wish to sleep. So although morning-types may appear go-getting when it’s bright and early, evening-types could still be working hard way past midnight.
The modern world is mostly built around a 9-to-5 workday routine though, which suits early-sleepers/risers much better and makes it appear like the night owls are lazy compared to the morning larks. But it’s naïve to think that ‘if someone isn’t working when I’m working then they’re lazy’ when we don’t notice when someone else is working precisely because we’re asleep when they are(!) It’s similarly naïve to call cats lazy for being crepuscular animals. A night owl working 9-to-5 is like trying to get a lark to work, say, 1-to-9. There are genetic differences between those who are owls, larks and those inbetween. And going against your natural body clock for sleep (circadian rhythm) will negatively impact your mental health; thus we shouldn’t expect night owls to find it easy to adjust to getting up early.
Naturally late-sleepers/risers correlate with higher rates of depression – although this could point to a biological cause, the effect of having to fight to fit into a 9-to-5 routine, or some third factor that causes both these?
There’s arguably nothing inherently unhealthy about being a night owl but most of modern life is geared towards mainly catering for morning larks or those inbetween, which makes it harder for owls to sleep well or be optimally productive. For example it’s not acceptable to make much noise at night but it’s okay to make plenty of noise during the day, which makes it difficult for night owls to count sheep without constant interruptions when they feel best sleeping. One can sleep with an eye mask to block out bright daylight that still penetrates through the curtains but they can slip off or get uncomfortable. Many things can only be done around 9-to-5, like going to school, so owls must be up at these times to do them. If they’re one-off events, like vet or dogtor appointments, then night owls might essentially need to jetlag themselves each time in order to make them. And when owls and larks socially get together, the owls are usually expected to accommodate the larks or inbetweeners rather than the other way around. (Extroverts may like the nightlife. Introverts may either prefer the quiet of the morning or quiet of the night. Like regarding owls and larks though – most people sit somewhere in the middle.)
So there’s often insufficient empathy and respect for night owls and their preferred work schedules. Therefore night owls tend to constantly have their sleep pattern disrupted, not just within nights but also across nights, with repercussions for their mental and physical well-being. Therefore despite the general assumption by others that they’re ‘sleeping in and thus sleeping more’ – owls in practice get markedly less sleep than larks on average. This sleep deprivation can affect their mood and dietary decisions (and thus risk of obesity) too. Whenever we interrupt a person’s sleep too regularly or on consecutive days, this can negatively affect their mental health and reduce their life expectancy. How much is that lost health financially worth to the affected?
We might assume that someone we’ve only met a few times before is innately slow, irritable or unmotivated – but we shouldn’t jump to such conclusions so quickly because it might be a sampling error? Maybe the only times you’ve seen them is in the daytime, when they work during night shifts, which means that they’ve always had to miss sleep to either get up earlier, or stay up all night through to the morning, in order to see you at the times that suit you rather than them? You’d hardly be optimally functioning if you had to meet someone or do something at a time that didn’t suit you!
For each of us, with our individual internal body clocks, there are optimal times to do things – so if the time of day a competition or exam is set suits some people’s internal body clock schedules more than others then is this considered unfair? Hence it’s not just the unfortunate timing of injuries that affects the chances of an athlete winning in a sporting competition (especially those that only come once every four years) but factors like what time of day a competition is held. We have a tendency to neglect this and other factors when we compare the results of one individual to another.
So owls generally aren’t permitted to operate optimally, and this starts from their school years, with therefore potentially compounding knock-on effects throughout their lives. We shouldn’t expect someone who’s not had enough sleep to feel refreshed enough to be at their best when they’re being asked to operate outside of their optimal hours, or to not forget some things that they normally wouldn’t, or to not be a little tetchy and impatient when they usually aren’t, for instance.
We should have the empathy to understand that it’s not as simple as expecting someone to just choose to sleep or get up at a time they don’t feel like it. Expecting an owl to fall asleep at 10pm is as difficult as expecting a lark to fall asleep at perhaps 6pm. You just lie awake in bed (feeling like you’re wasting time) because your body clock isn’t ready to signal sleepiness! Expecting owls to perform and be at their best at 9am is perhaps like expecting larks to be most alert or sociable at 1am.
I suppose some lucky individuals find it easy to sleep or nap whenever they want, but for many of us – it’s not like we have an on/off switch for sleeping that we can flick whenever we want. It’s not like we can ‘grit our fangs’ to force ourselves to sleep(!)
…Yet shifting one’s circadian rhythm is possible. There are some things one can try to override one’s natural chronotype without fuzzy ill effects – although it takes extra effort, adjustment and discipline for those who must adapt to everybody else’s schedule.
One’s chronotype appears to be ~50% genetically determined. Whatever your personally preferred sleep schedule though, you can somewhat control it with some changes and lots of diligent consistency. It can be affected by whether you see enough natural, outdoor sunlight, especially within the first few hours after you get up – we all need daylight to recalibrate our internal body clocks to a 24-hour cycle because our internal clocks aren’t exactly 24-hours per cycle. For most people it’s naturally a bit longer than 24 hours thus they’d drift towards sleeping later and later, and getting up later and later, if they don’t see enough daylight.
It’s more specifically about the level of blue light you get into your eyes and when because blue light makes us feel awake. So expose yourself to more blue light during the times you want to be feeling most awake and alert – go outside or open the curtains as soon as you wake up (incandescent light bulb light won’t cut it). Regular sunlight (UVB exposure) may also help reduce nearsightedness too. Then minimise the amount of blue light you see during the last few hours when you want to wind down for the day ready for sleep – you could maybe wear orange lens glasses (which block out blue light) or use LED light bulbs that can change their colour to orange or red.
A problem though for extreme night owls (who might have delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD)) or night shift workers is that they may find it impossible to get enough natural sunlight as soon as they get up, depending on what time of day they get up, especially if it’s winter.
Some research actually finds that the effect of blue light from electronic devices on people’s drowsiness levels is small. Other research – albeit involving mice – disputes that blue light keeps humans more awake at all. Whatever the case, the heightened activity levels when watching a screen can keep you awake, and most certainly, the brightness of the light matters significantly – bright light of any colour keeps diurnal animals more awake, and vice-versa. So best avoid looking at any phone screens while in bed.
Whatever your chronotype, it’s best to have consistent sleep, meal and wake times according to the daily schedule you wish to achieve. Eat a decent breakfast/meal early in your day but don’t consume a large meal before bedtime. If you’re really hungry though then don’t eat anything more than a light snack, or drink caffeine, or have naps, too late in the day. Your most productive work will likely occur around 4 to 10 hours after you get up so try to work around then. Some people prefer to work flexibly, some stress about coming back to a large backlog of emails in the morning, and it can depend on the job one does – but whatever the case, it’s generally important to be able to totally switch off from one’s work after working hours.
Exercising during the day will help you to sleep during the night. It’s personal whether you find it best to exercise in the morning, afternoon or evening though, but don’t exercise within a few hours of going to bed. However, if you’re a night owl and want to adjust to a 9-to-5 life then try to do your exercise in the mornings, not evenings.
We all really live daily lives that our bodies were never designed to live, due to artificial lighting (including indoor lamps and TV screens) being used late into the evenings. Humans didn’t evolve for this modern world and it’s having an effect on their sleep. Constantly chopping and changing one’s sleep times is really what screws up one’s health though – so if you do night shift work during the weekdays then it’s recommended to stick to those waking and sleeping times during the weekends too. Research shows that changing the clocks for daylight savings twice a year, even though it’s just for an hour forwards or backwards, can create sufficient physiological upheaval. And that’s what a night owl essentially goes through frequently when their schedule is periodically interrupted by having to go along with the schedules of larks and others.
Studies suggest that dogs synchronise to the chronotype and any ‘social jetlag’ (the changes in sleep pattern between the weekdays and weekends) that the humans they live with experience. I’m an independent doggy though. I’m also naturally an extreme night owl – and I can declare that at times it can be ruff living in a 9-to-5 world. If your natural circadian rhythm doesn’t optimally fit the circumstances in your life then you can reply to the tweet linked in the Twitter comment button below to share your experiences too.
So very tired…