Night owls may be genetically predisposed, but changing our body clock is not impossible
I love sleeping. There, I said it. Especially in the warm cocoon of the morning. And I enjoy staying up well into the stillness of night. This is how it’s always been. On most mornings, I hit the snooze button until shame alone ejects me from bed.
Lately, though, I’ve been imagining how different life would be if I were a morning person. I mean, what an edge—to have your life together before the rest of the time zone has even made coffee.
But it wasn’t until I read that night owls are “less reliable, less emotionally stable, and more likely to have addictions,” according to a study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine—and, according to a U.K. study, fatter and more prone to depression—that I realized I might really have to look into this.
I decided to seek a second opinion.
“The concept of morning people being healthier is a bunch of crap,” says Dr. Tony Masri, M.D. of Santa Cruz’s Central Coast Sleep Disorders Clinic. “It’s a myth. If you’re a night owl, there is nothing endogenously wrong with you.”
It turns out the problem isn’t us night owls, it’s that we’re living in a morning person’s world. “Night people tend to, for the most part, bear more of the consequences of the nine-to-five rat-race culture that we have gotten ourselves into, in terms of sleep deprivation,” says Masri.
Accumulated sleep loss results in delayed sleep phase syndrome, a disease Masri says is very common among his patients. “We know for a fact that sleep deprivation can cause weight gain, it can cause more car accidents, it can put people at higher risk for other health problems like diabetes,” he says. “That’s why you look at some of the data and it looks like they have it worse.”
But night owls who can naturally wake up at 10 or 11 in the morning face no biological harm from following their own rhythm. Quite the contrary, actually. “Thirteen to 16 percent of teenagers tend to be night owls, and moving the high school start time [later] has been shown to improve SAT scores as much as 200 points,” Masri says. “Sleep is a need, a biological necessity. It’s not a luxury.”
It’s important to note that sleep tendencies and circadian rhythms are strongly influenced by genetics. Some people are inherently night people, some are morning, and the rest can fall anywhere in between, says Masri. Just a few years ago, scientists identified the specific genetic variation that may determine where we fall in the sleeping and waking cycle. (Incredibly, this same gene variant may also determine the time of day a person is likely to die.)
That said, it’s not impossible to switch our clocks, or to turn a tired old night owl into a fresh little morning bird. Of the four main zeitgebers, or external cues that help synchronize an organism’s biological rhythms, light is the most important, says Masri. “And by light, I mean outdoor light,” he says. Masri recommends that night owls attempting the lifestyle flip get outside within 15 minutes of dragging themselves from bed, and get natural light exposure for at least half an hour. From personal experience, I recommend walking or running as far away from your bed as possible during these tender minutes, to get the blood pumping and also to avoid getting sucked back in.
It will also mean relinquishing your night to sleep much earlier, and experts recommend moving your bedtime earlier incrementally over several weeks for the best success.
The average person needs about 30 minutes to wind down and get ready for bed, but the night person can take up to two hours, says Masri. During these hours, blue light—emitted by most electronics—should be avoided, since it has the strongest effects on the brain clock. If screen time is absolutely necessary, look into special glasses or screen covers. I’ve found a cup of herbal tea and a good paper-and-ink book to be an excellent sleep inducer. The other three zeitgebers are food, exercise and social activity. In a nutshell, don’t do any of them right before your new bedtime curfew.
IT’S A MORNING PERSON’S WORLD But night owls have to live in it. With a little bit of knowledge, they can.