Are you a night owl or a morning lark?
When it comes to sleep, people tend to fall into one of two categories – either you’re the sort of person that springs out of bed in the morning and throws yourself head on into your list of daily activities or you’re the type that prefers to stay up late burning the midnight oil.
Both sleeping habits have their pros and cons, but until recently it was thought that these patterns originated in environmental issues or developed as a result of habit. After all, how you sleep at night can depend on a variety of different factors that may influence your circadian rhythm - your internal biological clock that runs to a 24 hour sleep-wake cycle.
In most cases, as a result of your circadian rhythm, melatonin, the sleep hormone, will be secreted as the sun starts to set, making you feel nice and sleepy in preparation for going to bed. Either due to shift work, fluctuating hormones or stress behaviours, this release of melatonin can be inhibited, making you feel more awake and alert at night.
However, research has now found that your preferred sleeping pattern could arise from genetic factors and that there may even be physical differences in the brains of different chronotypes!
First let’s take a look at the genetic factors. According to one study, night owls may face problems getting up early in the morning due to a mutation in a gene known as CRY1, which can affect your circadian rhythm and alter your sleep-wake cycle so it runs slightly slower than other peoples. In fact, it’s thought that those affected by this gene mutation could experience sleep delays of up to two and a half hours compared to non-carriers!1
This research could go a long way towards explaining why some people are exhausted by 10pm and others find themselves able to get more work done at night. However, further studies are also finding that there may be more physical differences too!
Scientists at the Aachen University in Germany conducted brain scans of three main sleep patterns – night owls, morning larks and intermediate sleepers. In their findings it was discovered that there were structural differences in the brains of people different sleep habits, with night owls displaying reduced integrity in their white matter.2 White matter is the fatty tissue of the brain that deals with communication between different nerve cells.
This reduction in white matter could be problematic – low integrity is sometimes linked to poor cognitive function and mental health issues such as depression. Rather than being an inherent biological factor, such as with gene mutation, it’s also thought that this degradation could be the result of the social jet lag experienced by night owls.
Are night owls less healthy than morning larks?
As I’ve just discussed, the structural differences in the brains of night owls could potentially indicate the negative health repercussions associated with this particular sleep pattern.
Most sleep experts seem to agree that those that stay up later at night are more predisposed to health problems such as; poorer metabolism, increased risk of diabetes and muscle loss.3 It’s also thought that late sleepers can fall into poor lifestyle habits such as remaining sedentary and developing a dependence on caffeine.
This makes sense as those that go to bed late are still forced to get up early for family commitments and work, meaning that they are more susceptible to sleep deprivation.
Sleep deprivation can affect the hormone responsible for regulating your appetite, leptin, and increase your levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, so you’ll be more inclined to binge on sugary, carb-heavy foods and, due to your sleep patterns, are more likely to eat late at night. Also, because you’ll feel more tired during the day, it means you’ll feel less inclined to be active and may even suffer from mood swings, irritability and stress.
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom for night owls. Studies have indicated that night owls may be able to remain mentally alert for longer4 and some research also seems to suggest that late risers may statistically be more intelligent5, but further studies would be needed and this is not necessarily set in concrete.
Should night owls be allowed to rise later?
Now that evidence has come to light about the genetic factors involved with being a night owl, some experts are calling for employers to consider their employees' sleeping patterns. One study’s co-author dubbed it a ‘public health issue that can no longer be ignored.’6
Asking those that go to bed late to get up early could contribute to serious health problems, but implementing a strategy to counter this could be tricky for obvious reasons. That’s why it’s generally preferred that those that are naturally inclined to stay up late do their best to regulate their circadian rhythm. This can sometimes be easier said than done though.
Can a night owl become an early bird?
Trying to reset your sleep patterns can be problematic, especially if you’re genetically programmed to be more awake and alert at night. However, deep restorative sleep usually occurs between 11pm and 5am so it’s pivotal that you try and get some shut-eye during this time! That’s why below I’ve listed my top 5 tips to help you get into a regular sleep pattern.
1 – Start small
Change never comes easily and its best done in small bits. If you immediately jump from going to bed at 2am to trying to get to sleep at 9 o’clock on the dot then you are going to have problems and are probably biting off a bit more than you can currently chew. Instead, set yourself a smaller, more achievable target. Start by gradually shifting your bedtime – at first, aim to go to bed half an hour earlier than usual and slowly increase this time.
2 – Be Consistent
Being consistent with the time that you get up at is extremely important as it can help to train your body into better sleep habits. While it might be tempting, after a week of getting up at 7am, to try and earn some sleep back at the weekends, this may actually do more harm than good. Instead, don’t deviate from your usual sleep pattern too drastically on your days off – aim to be up within an hour of your usual wake up time. It can also help if you avoid using the snooze button on your alarm clock – getting those extra 9 minutes definitely isn’t as beneficial as it seems!
3 – Avoid your devices after 9pm
If you’re familiar with any of my other blogs, you’ll already know my feelings about using electronic devices close to your bedtime. Mobile phones, tablets, laptops and televisions all emit a blue light that can inhibit your production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. This means that if you’re wide awake at midnight and scrolling on social media, you’ll find it even more difficult to get to sleep. That’s why I generally say to put your devices away an hour before bedtime in order to focus on more relaxing activities that won’t inspire a stress reaction or interrupt your production of melatonin.
4 – Don’t stock up on sugary snacks
If you’re getting up early and staying up late you might be more inclined to snack during the day and later in the evening. However, the snacks you might be craving are not usually the sort that help to promote a healthy sleep pattern – processed fats, refined carbs and sugar can go a long way towards instigating sleep deprivation, often forming part of a vicious cycle which I explore a bit more in my blog, ‘Is your lack of sleep making you overeat?’
Sometimes though, even supposedly healthy food and drinks can upset your sleep cycle so it’s always worth being a bit more conscious about what you put into your body and to be aware of foods that may potentially aid your sleep patterns.
5 – Don’t be afraid of herbal helpers!
If you are still struggling to unwind in the evenings and are finding it difficult to switch off, it may help to try a gentle herbal remedy such as Dormeasan. A soothing combination of Valerian and Hops, Dormeasan works to relax your nervous system, making it easier for you drift into a natural deep sleep. It’s also not associated with any of the groggy side-effects of conventional sleep medicines! For best results, take some Dormeasan with your evening meal – you can also take it again if you wake up at any point during the night!
What about morning larks?
Okay, so I’ve spoken at length about the potential repercussions of being a night owl but what about morning larks? Well, in moderation there’s nothing wrong with getting up early in the morning but again this can depend on your definition of early. Anything before 5 am is definitely too early and will have an impact on your health – remember, your body needs to sleep between 11am and 5am in order to carry out important restorative work!
However, in general, being an early riser is associated with far more health benefits than being a night owl. Studies have demonstrated that early risers are for the most part happier, more proactive and less likely to be sedentary compared to their night owl counterparts.7