The truth about early birds

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Anthropology / Biology / Evolution / Genetics / Health / Myths / Psychology

We all know the saying ‘The early bird catches the worm’. But are there any real benefits to being a morning person? What determines whether you’re an early bird or a night owl anyway? And can night owls become early risers if they want to?

Embracing the dawn. Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash.

Tick tock

Your body has an internal clock. It’s located in the base of your brain, in the hypothalamus. You’ve probably heard the term circadian rhythm: this is the natural sleep and wake cycle of all animals which is synced to the Earth’s 24-hour cycle.

Unlike nocturnal animals, people are generally awake during the day. But there are differences in when we prefer to sleep. Your preferred sleep and wake times are your chronotype. Most people start their lives as early birds – many of us have personally experienced how early babies tend to wake up. But wake times usually shift later as we age, with teens notorious for their late nights and long sleep-ins.

Known as the sentinel hypothesis, the theory goes that a tribe of humans with staggered sleep schedules were at an evolutionary advantage: there was always someone wide awake and ready to stand guard. Today, some of us are early risers, some of us late risers, and many fall somewhere in between.

All in the genes?

We’ve long known genes play a role in determining chronotypes, but a big study published last year made clear how complex the link is. Researchers studied the genomes of nearly 700,000 people in the US and UK and identified 351 areas in the genome that contribute to whether someone is an early riser.

But people who are genetically most likely to be early risers only wake on average 25 minutes earlier than those who aren’t, so there are clearly a lot of other factors at play too.

A study published just last week found that one in 300 people has what’s called Advanced Sleep Phase, waking naturally well before dawn (between 3 and 5am). The researchers found for roughly one in 500 people, this super early rising runs in the family. These numbers are higher than we previously thought and also suggest a genetic role. My Dad and I are classic examples of this condition. People find it hard to believe but I wake up at 3:30am without an alarm.

The benefits of being an early bird

Although we now understand being a night owl is nothing about laziness, there are definitely some costs that come with staying up late.

One of the main problems is now known as social jet lag. Normal jet lag is the result of flying to a different time zone and experiencing a mismatch between the time your body thinks it is and the actual time in your new location.

Social jet lag is the mismatch between many peoples’ body clocks and the waking hours they are forced to keep because of school or work. If your preferred sleep time is 2am to 10am, having to be up at 7 for work isn’t going to do you any favours.

But there are other problems associated with being a night owl. Night owls consume more caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. A large twin study found night owls were much more likely to be current and lifelong smokers.

Morning people also tend to have better mental health. Night owls are at greater risk of suffering both depression and schizophrenia.

A big international review of studies found evidence that night owls may be at higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The study found those who stay up later at night tended to have more erratic eating habits (for example, missing breakfast) and ate more unhealthy food.

Research suggests there are also personality differences between morning and night people. Morning people tend to be more proactive, persistent and cooperative, whereas night owls tend to be more creative and better at risk-taking.

Can you make the switch?

If you’re a night owl who’d like to get up earlier, you probably can if you’re willing to change your habits.

A recent study of young people whose average preferred sleep time was 3am to 10.30am showed it’s possible to substantially shift sleep times in the space of only one month.

These study volunteers were asked to follow a series of rules: get up two – three hours earlier, have breakfast as soon as they woke up, avoid caffeine after 3pm, maximise the amount of time they spent outdoors in light during the morning, and not sleep in on weekends. Amazingly, all the participants stuck to the program. Quite possibly because they began to feel much better: less sleepy, stressed, anxious and depressed.  Instead of feeling at their best in the evening, they now hit their peak in the mid-afternoon.

Other research has shown that when you take people camping and deny them access to all artificial light other than a campfire, their body clocks quickly change. Within a week, former night owls feel sleepy much earlier in the evening and wake with dawn.

If you’re a night owl who can’t or doesn’t want to make the switch, take heart: if you ever move to Mars, you’ll probably cope far better with that planet’s 24-hour, 39-minute solar day. Extreme morning types like me are likely to find it much harder to adapt to the 40-minute shift.

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4 Comments

  1. Quite a timely post – just finished reading Dan Pink’s ‘When – the scientific secrets of perfect timing’ and early birds make a feature within the book. It helps you understand if you’re an early bird, night owl or what he calls the ‘third bird’ – in between the two (of which approx 65% of us fall into) and then helps you determine your peak mental timing so you can make good decisions/be most creative/get stuff done efficiently etc. Worth a read.

    • That sounds like a great book – thanks for the recommendation. Are you a third bird? I think the idea of a peak time is really important!

  2. I’m an early bird. The way to quickly work it out, based on Roenneberg, the chronobiologist, methodology is as follows:
    1. What time do you usually fall asleep (say 11:30pm)
    2. What time do you usually wake up, without work alarms artificially waking you up (say 7:30am)
    3. What is the mid point – in this instance 3:30am
    4. Compare to the Roenneberg chart
    Lark/early bird is 12am-3:30am (14% of population)
    Third bird is 3:30m-5:30am (65%)
    Owl is 5:30am-12pm (21%)
    PS. I think you’ll like the book as he weaves all his scientific reference material into his story/messaging. I bought the iBook, so it then typically hyperlinks you directly on the web

    • Thanks Marti. I’ve read a lot of the research, but not the book and it sounds great. Glad to be in the early bird club with you 😀

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