Can a night owl become an early bird?

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Biology / Genetics / Health / Psychology

A couple of weeks ago I asked students in one of my classes whether they were early risers or night owls. Almost all identified as one or the other. But is either being up at dawn or burning the midnight oil simply habit, or is something else going on?

Humans are no different to most of the other creatures on earth. We have an internal body clock, which determines a 24-hour rhythm to our activity. This clock can be found in the hypothalamus, at the base of the brain. Across the animal kingdom, the majority of species are either nocturnal (active at night) or diurnal (active during the day).

I’m not nocturnal

I should know: I spent the best part of ten years following around a nocturnal species to better understand its social and mating behaviour.

Possibly not one of my better choices given that I have always functioned best when I go to bed and also get up early. I always liked the Benjamin Franklin quote: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

It turns out — although fundamentally diurnal — most humans also show distinct preferences for different times of the day and night. Your chronotype is your preferred time of sleeping and activity.

Ten percent of people qualify as true early birds, twenty percent as night owls, and everyone else falls in between. Morning people have brains that are most active at 9 am, whereas night people have brains primed for action at 9 pm. Research tells us that going to bed between 11 pm and midnight and waking between 7 and 8 am is the most common pattern among humans.

If you aren’t sure where you sit on the early—late continuum, you can take this test to find out.

But does it all come down to habit? Or do the brains and genes of early birds and night owls actually differ?

It’s in your genes

The simple answer is yes. A number of studies have identified genes that influence a person’s chronotype. The genes known as PER1, PER3 and ABCC9 all play a role in regulating our body clocks and vary predictably among people of different chronotypes.

And in your brain

Scans have also found true structural differences between the brains of early and late risers. In night owls, the quality of the white matter in the brain is compromised. White matter has the job of ensuring effective communication between the nerve cells and changes here have been linked to depression and other psychological problems.

Whether these structural differences in the brain are the cause — or result — of being a night owl, we don’t yet know.

Are you a night owl?

Are you a night owl in a world made for early birds? And could you change if you wanted to? Image credit: Amir Jina via Flickr.

Does your chronotype matter?

On the one hand, no. If you are able to get enough sleep, feel alert when you need to, and are generally happy with your chronotype, there’s no problem.

But a large body of research highlights problems faced by night owls. The main issue is a potentially large mismatch for night owls between social and biological time. Although night owls may not feel tired until 2 am, they probably still need to be up at 7 am in order to get to work on time. This mismatch has been called social jetlag. Our lives are generally structured to suit morning, but not nighttime people.

Studies have found that night owls who experience this conflict between internal and external time suffer more from mental distress and are more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol than early birds. Night owls also experience worse sleep and tend to score highly on personality tests looking at psychopathy and narcissism.

Can you change?

If you’re a night owl who wants to be an early bird, what are your chances of switching?

Probably very good, if you are willing to embrace some new habits, says sleep researcher Dr Simon Archer.

It is not all to do with your genetics. You can choose to follow a particular life pattern. You can override your genes. Dr Simon Archer

Camping might be the answer

Researchers took eight people camping in the wilderness of Colorado. Some were night owls, some early birds. No torches or electronic devices were allowed and within one week the circadian rhythms of all of the campers were synchronised and timed with sunrise and sunset. At the end of the week, all were happily rising at dawn. The key: taking away access to artificial light (think lights, mobile phones, tablets, TVs and computers) after the sun has set.

Regardless of your genetic predisposition, making changes to your habits could make all the difference.

But if you’re a night person and avoiding artificial light after sunset doesn’t appeal, another option is to change your schedule to better match your chronotype. There have been many calls for the work or school day to run from 11 am to 7 pm for the night owls among us.

Sound appealing? Now you know the science to convince your boss.

Links and stuff

This post was referenced on iflscience.com

17 Comments

  1. How interesting that people turn to a dusk and dawn pattern without artificial light. Makes me want to go camping. A couple of years ago I heard about research done where a person sad in the dark for weeks, and their sleeping pattern to a 25 hour cycle.

  2. Well, yes and no. There is a wide “normal” range and those are the people you are writing about. Many larks and owls might prefer to live according to their chronotypes but can adjust if/when they need to. But then there are a much smaller number of us who do NOT have normal circadian rhythms. Some few can’t help but fall asleep at 7 or 8 in the evening and then sleep the normal 8 hours or so. They have an “advanced sleep phase”. Many more of us have a “delayed sleep phase” and cannot get to sleep before 3 or 5 or even 7 a.m. Forcing ourselves to work 9-5 causes both physical and paychological problems, and we burn out early.

    But! It is important to note that when we can sleep on our natural built-in schedule, we can sleep very well, thank you. We may have problems in society, in school and employment and relationships, but there is nothing wrong with our sleep. When I was in elementary school, my mother used to wake up and come check on me at 2 or 3 a.m.; I was always awake, often braiding and unbraiding the fringe on my bedspread. I had no choice.

    It’s even worse for those who cannot keep to a 24-hour day at all but must live on a 25 to 27-hour day, for example. They can never go to sleep at the same time as the “night” before, always an hour or two later.

    Those of us with circadian rhythm disorders are relatively few but we’d rather not be completely forgotten.

  3. Thanks for answering, Jen, and thanks for the link. The comments on that article certainly show what attitudes are out there! There are some well-informed and reasoned ones. That’s good. The bad comments blame bad parenting for teens’ sleep patterns, don’t want self-centered teens to be even more coddled than they are already, and what about later when they have to get up early for work?!!! The usual, but I do think understanding of the need for later school start times for teens is SLOWLY increasing. I’ve read somewhere (sorry, no link) that also other mammals have a delayed rest/activity cycle in adolescence!

    Delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD) and non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder (“Non-24”) were discovered/defined around 1980. They are still not exactly well-known! I didn’t get diagnosed and start learning about them until 10 years ago, as I was nearing retirement age. So, no, I never found “a lifestyle that [could] match [my] natural, in-built schedule”! I think my mother had a better inkling that something was really wrong than I ever did. I’ve been considered lazy and irresponsible etc., and I blamed myself for not trying harder — for many decades. So I’m now an advocate and I was one of the founders of the not-for-profit organization Circadian Sleep Disorders Network (csd-n.org for short). There and on our mailing list and a few Facebook and other fora we meet many people just finding out that their (or their children’s) sleep problems have a name! That is a revelation and the first step. There’s no particularly good treatment and the vast majority of doctors have never heard of us, including even those calling themselves “sleep specialists”.

    The problems don’t go away, but just knowing that “it’s not just me, not my fault, I’m not alone” is tremendously important psychologically. Quite a few have decided to never have children. The disorders do run in families, and, if your babies are normal, how are you going to get up when they wake up and get them off to school? I don’t know of any cases where children are actually taken away from their parent(s) because of this, but I’ve heard from several who’ve been threatened with that because their kids are chronically late to school

    For children with one of these disorders the most important thing is informed parents who are willing and able to fight for accommodations at school. And, of course, building and supporting positive self-esteem, as all parents should be doing. Many families have found that home-schooling is the only thing that works. Many kids with these and other sleep disorders (including apnea) get diagnosed AD/HD and get a very wrong treatment.

    Many thanks for your interest, Jen.

    • Thanks so much D, for taking the time to share your experiences and fill me/ us in on these sleep disorders. I knew a little, but not much about them.

      I must admit to finding the disorders fascinating but that feels horrible given that they clearly cause massive problems for sufferers like you.

      How can it be that even sleep specialists aren’t aware of these patterns of sleep? And what are the recommended treatments (even if they aren’t much good)?

      Hopefully more and more schools will be able to accommodate students with different needs in terms of attendance hours.

      Thanks again for sharing. Seems I will need to do a segment and post on these disorders too!!

      • It would be wonderful if you’d do a segment and post on these disorders too!!

        You wrote: “How can it be that even sleep specialists aren’t aware of these patterns of sleep? And what are the recommended treatments (even if they aren’t much good)?”

        “Sleep specialists” have traditionally been pulmonologists, diagnosing Sleep Apnea. And that’s important. They and their clinics make money on polysomnography (overnight sleep studies) and selling and working on the CPAP machines. They’ve added other disorders such as Restless Legs, REM Behavior Disorder and other things they can observe during the overnight tests.

        Meanwhile the scientists, the researchers, have been very busy studying circadian and other biological rhythms (tidal, monthly, seasonal and also shorter ones) in many creatures, sometimes even in humans, especially since about 1960. The traditional “sleep specialists” haven’t paid much attention to this, but some others, including pediatricians and psychiatrists, have slowly been catching up. Narcolepsy and Hypersomnia have also been step-children; they’re getting to be better known now, not least due to patient activists’ efforts.

        In the US a sleep medicine subspecialty was designed 2-3+ years ago; doctors who’ve taken that one-year program are guaranteed to at least have heard of circadian rhythms. But previously board-certified sleep “specialists” have been grandfathered in, so finding one with experience with CRDs still isn’t easy. (Pulmonologists are allowed to take a 1/2 year version of the program as they already know about breathing problems affecting sleep.)

        The not too effective treatments for DSPD and Non-24 are: 1) Bright light to the eyes immediately after the time of natural/spontaneous wake time. This banishes the hormone melatonin from the blood. (Not easy to manage if one starts work/school before one’s natural wake time!) 2) Afternoon and/or evening use of melatonin, usually orally though I’ve heard that transdermal patches also exist at least in research. Several hours before bed as a chronobiotic, 30 to 90 minutes before bed as a hypnotic. I get only positive, if small, results using melatonin 75 minutes before bed, as a hypnotic. Some people get unpleasant side-effects and some don’t react to it at all. 3) Light restriction, also called dark therapy or scototherapy, for a few hours before bed. As it is primarily blue light that banishes melatonin from the blood, we can use amber goggles and red theater gel over computer, phone, and TV screens. Some people even have two sets of lighting in their homes: regular for daytime, lamps with orange or red bulbs for evening. (Our evening can be, for example, 2 a.m.!)

        Treatments for Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder (ASPD) are essentially the opposite: melatonin in the morning and bright light in the evening.

        Often, people who have some success changing their sleep schedules don’t like the result. It just doesn’t feel right; the body seems to know it’s being tricked. So for DSPS, more and more often schooling and work in the evening/night are preferred. Online courses are a great help, even for high school kids.

        Even though doctors and the public don’t know about us, we are finding each other in various support groups. These are very important to us. They are validating. We learn how others try to cope and what others’ doctors are advising.

        Hoping this gets through to you, Jen, as I see that comments are closed on your post “Can a night owl become an early bird?”

      • Thanks so much for your fascinating and detailed response and I’m sorry for my slow reply. I was away camping all of last week and have been madly trying to catch up on things.

        Thanks also for alerting me to the fact that the default setting was for commenting to close after 30 days. I have now fixed that!

        I will definitely add these disorders to my list of topics I want to research so I can write/ talk about it. Would you be happy for me to contact you again then with any other questions?

        Thanks again so much for sharing, Jenn

      • Yes, indeed. I’m one of those patient activists. We really need to get the word out about these disorders. People are treated like liars & fakers all too often and are treated with sleeping pills and, often anti-depressants. For those who haven’t learned that their disorder is “a thing”, it is sooo important that they learn about it. And if “the public” were educated, they might even believe that there is, as a rule, nothing wrong with our sleep; it’s just the inflexible timing of it. Do contact me, but be aware that I’ll soon be off-line for a good month: late October to late November.

        Otherwise, you may contact CSDN, Circadian Sleep Disorders Network (csd-n.org for short).

        Here’s an article I wrote a few years back:
        http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/08/26/376330/-A-Little-Bit-Special-DSPS-a-sleep-disorder

        Cheers!

        _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
        When I mentioned pediatricians and psychiatrists above, I should have included neurologists.

        Also above, I wrote: “I’ve read somewhere (sorry, no link) that also other mammals have a delayed rest/activity cycle in adolescence!” Here’s a source that verifies that: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2820578/
        And that article has been cited in 20 others:
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2820578/citedby/

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