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The Truth Behind Night Owls and Early Birds

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Get Up by Your Own CLOCK

I used to work with one of my roommates and getting up in the morning and heading to our job proved to be one of the most trying times in our friendship. I was up with the alarm clock and onto my morning routine, whereas she would stay in bed well past the ringing. Convinced we would be late, I’d go in and give her some gentle nudging, which never went over well. She’d grumble and complain; sometimes she’d hurl insults like “Leave me alone,” or “I hate you,” or simply, “Die.” Offended, I’d sulk away, even more convinced of our impending tardiness. Later on, over a strong cup of coffee, she’d apologize and we’d have a good laugh, only for the same routine to be repeated the following morning.

Studies have indicated that self-described early birds have shorter circadian rhythms than self-identified night owls. This means that morning people sleep through their peak hour of sleepiness, so they wake up feeling refreshed. Evening types usually wake up right around their peak hour of sleepiness, so they may have high levels of melatonin and feel groggy. No wonder it’s tough to rouse them.

Hormones and body temperature also differ between the sleep groups. Early birds have higher levels of cortisol in the morning, which may give them the perky edge. Body temperature tends to be low in the morning, peaks in the late afternoon, and decreases until bedtime. Early risers have a body temperature peak around 3:30 p.m., while night owls are hottest around 8 p.m.

Our sleep preferences are at least in part hereditary. Differences in the CLOCK gene (short for Circadian Locomotor Output Cycles Kaput), for instance, may contribute to differences in our favored times of activity. Sleep researchers at Stanford University found that people with one genotype had an increased preference for eveningness, while the other genotype had an increased preference for morningness.

Biology and Behavior
Though our sleeping and waking preferences may be partially innate, some are due to what we’re used to from childhood, the seasons, or what we’ve adapted to. This means we can—and do—change our sleeping patterns.

For instance, during the summer, when daylight hours are plenty, we may stay up later but rise earlier with the sun. In the winter, darkness and cold sets in early, making our beds all that much more alluring. It’s also harder to wake early in the winter when it’s dark out.

Age also alters our sleeping patterns. Different times in our lives lend themselves to different sleeping patterns. During the teens, for instance, hormones may change the sleep and wake patterns, and this is one explanation as to why so many teens tend to shift to a night owl schedule. (Socializing, studying, and busy schedules also contribute.) Alternatively, as people get older, work and familial demands tend to make people more morning focused, regardless of their preferences. Later in life, in the sixties and seventies, people tend to need less sleep altogether.

In Sleep as in Life?
In reality, however, few of us are true morning people who can effortlessly bound out of bed at five or six in the morning; likewise die-hard night owls are also rare. Researchers estimate that extremes comprise about 10 to 20 percent of the population, with the rest of us falling somewhere on the intermediate spectrum. And in fact, the majority of us prefer a common point in the 24-hour continuum: daytime.

So what does that say about the common belief that night people are more creative—the artist who stays up to the wee hours to paint or the musician who keeps a bedtime-at-dawn type schedule?

A few studies show that character traits may differ between the diurnal and the nocturnal. A Spanish researcher found that the time of day we prefer to be most active corresponds to certain personality traits. Early risers were more likely to be logical and analytical, and likely to use concrete information as sources of knowledge, whereas those that stayed up late were more imaginative and intuitive. Another study published in the February 2007 issue of Personality and Individual Differences determined that night owls scored better on creativity tests than did intermediary and morning people.

However, the research presents a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum: Does your internal clock shape your psychology or does your psychology help shape your sleeping patterns, and thus your internal clock? Many questions still remain and I’m sure there are many creative early risers and analytical late-nighters who would dispute the above studies.

Can an Owl See the Light?
Despite our preferences, we do live in a society where we pretty much follow an early riser’s schedule. If you are someone who has to conform to a regular work schedule, then there are some things you can do to help shift your sleep pattern into one. Many of them are tips on how to get a good’s night sleep in general. The National Sleep Foundation has the following recommendations:

  • Don’t bring it with you.

The bed should be used for sleeping and sex, not computing, watching TV, eating, etc. Though I read before going to bed, the NSF even recommends banning books from your boudoir.

  • Try to stay consistent.

Studies have shown that night owls tend to have inconsistent bed and waking times. One of the best ideas for a good’s night sleep is to try to go to bed around the same time every night. (I find this nearly impossible on the weekends.) This will not only help you sleep better, it can help shift your clock to an earlier (or later, if that’s what you want) bedtime.

  • Don’t pull the shades.

Our sleep patterns are affected by light, so letting the natural stuff in each morning will help you rise. Don’t put down the blinds or shades; the brightness will help you wake up. (If not totally make you mad.) In addition, when evening rolls around, dim the lights and make sure your bedroom is dark.

  • No midnight snacks or drinks.

The NSF recommends not eating two to three hours before going to bed and not drinking too close to bedtime either. Likewise, people who have a hard time falling asleep are generally told to limit late afternoon caffeine consumption.

  • Exercise regularly—it can help you fall asleep.

Exercising too close to bedtime can have the opposite effect, but generally if you finish within an hour or two of hitting the hay, you should be okay.

As it turns out, although I’m normally chipper in the a.m., I’m not a true morning person—I have to set an alarm and I like to hit snooze at least two to three times. And my late-sleeping roommate has now adjusted her schedule to her new job with early hours. And she gets up all by herself.

Related Story: Is the Right Side of the Bed the Wrong One?

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