There are two kinds of sleepers in this world. Night owls who have energy well into the evening and go to bed late. And early birds, the ones who subscribe to the early-to-bed-early-to-rise regimen. You probably have a good idea of which category you fall into most of the time, but you might not know why or how to switch over into the other camp. Or even if you should.
We’ve got answers galore from our experts, so read on…
Scientists use different terminology to describe the distinct kinds of sleepers – chronotype. The word chronotype describes individual tendencies toward the timing of activity and rest each day. Early birds are also called larks, while night owls are still night owls. Each are shaped by biological and genetic forces, but also by lifestyle, mood, how you think and sleep.
Studies conducted by Aachen University in Germany used brain scans to determine who the larks and night owls were in a group of men and women. It found that night owls had less white matter, a type of fatty tissue in the brain, which raises their risk of depression and impairs cognitive function. It’s speculated that night owls experience a type of chronic jet lag because they like to stay up late and sleep later. This pattern may leave them sleep deprived, especially when their work or school lives don’t jive well with their preferred sleep times.
It’s not all grim news for night owls. Some data suggests that they tend to be more productive and have more stamina during the day.
But is it better to be a night owl or a lark? Most of the research points favorably to the larks.
Perhaps your job or lifestyle dictates that you need to make the switch from late nights to earlier bed times. Or maybe you’re concerned with the health risks that come with hitting the hay late. What can you do? Can you fight biology if you’re genetically predisposed to being a night owl or a lark? The good news is that you can change.
Ellen Wermter, a nurse practitioner with the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, says that the first question she would ask is, “Do you really need to make the switch and be an early bird?” If so, you can shift your phase. “The most powerful weapon you’ve got for doing that is light – re-timer glasses, light boxes, and most importantly, going outside. Limiting light exposure at the right times is also key – dimming lights and blocking alerting colors of the spectrum like blues and greens. Keep electronic devices out of the bedroom. Temperature, melatonin and timing of exercise and meals are other key components to shifting sleep phase. Once you have it in place, the key to keeping it there is routine.”
To switch from being a night owl to an early birdwill take time. According to Bill Fish, certified sleep coach with Tuck.com, your best bet is probably to adjust the time you go to bed and the time you wake up by only 15 minutes per night. It allows your body to become accustomed to the change gradually. “There is nothing good about your body being shocked by a piercing alarm clock out of a deep sleep,” he says.
If your schedule allows, waking with the sun is an excellent method to wake up naturally over a period of time to gradually take you out of your slumber. If you can’t wake with the sun, a sunrise alarm clock is an excellent alternative, he suggests. The clock mimics the rise of the sun and gradually fills your room with light to give you that same feeling of a gradual wake up, leaving you charged and ready to attack the day.
Your body might not be happy about the change and you might feel sleepy while you’re in the middle of the process. Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant clinical professor, Yale School of Medicine, has some ideas of how to ease the transition. “Have some caffeine (if desired),” she says. “Eight ounces is a good amount. It helps to get rid of any adenosine (a sleep hormone) that is still hanging around and signals the brain to wake up.”
She also recommends engaging in some light activity (yoga, stretching, a short walk) and getting some sunlight exposure (about 30 minutes outdoors is best). Also, have something to eat. Resetting your stomach clock also help sets the brain’s clock. Dr. Schneeberg also weighs in on the debate about whether being an early bird is better. “Being an early bird is not necessarily more healthful,” she says. “The healthiest option is the one that matches your own internal preference.”
If you still want to make the switch, your other option is to do nothing. The shift will eventually happen all on its own. UNLV anthropologist Alyssa Crittenden co-led a study published last summer, which essentially found that — thanks to humans’ evolutionary hunter-gatherer pasts — becoming an early riser occurs naturally as we age.
According to the research, elusive sleep patterns as humans age may have evolved to ensure safety. Many, many years ago, when a lion was lurking in the shadows at 2 a.m., it was beneficial for people who lived in groups to have different sleep patterns because it helped ensure that at least one person was awake at all times.
The scientists, who studied a group of modern hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, found that the pattern of older people going to bed and rising earlier than younger people continues today.
“A lot of older people go to doctors complaining that they wake up early and can’t get back to sleep, but maybe there’s nothing wrong with them,” said co-author Charlie Nunn, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. “Maybe some of the medical issues we have today could be explained not as disorders, but as a relic of an evolutionary past in which they were beneficial.”
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