Chances are you know someone who is a night owl and someone else who is an early bird.
The night owl happily stays up until the wee hours of the morning, working or reading a book or watching Netflix while scrolling through the phone. The early bird, of course, is annoyingly perky before the sun is up: dressed and greeting the world at 6 a.m.
While your own tendency toward being an early bird or a night owl depends in part on your developmental stage — cue images of late-sleeping teens and early-rising seniors — part of it is actually genetic.
That means to a certain extent, you’re born one way or the other.
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For most people, that isn’t a big deal. But extreme night owls and extreme early birds make up a small percentage of the population — and experts who help them adjust to our 9-5 world could provide tips for you if you’re trying to be a little livelier in the early hours or if you’re hoping not to yawn your way through another late night out.
Here’s how Dr. Andrew Lim, a sleep neurologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, puts it:
“The vast majority of people have entrainable circadian rhythms.”
What makes you an early bird or a night owl?
Quick fact check: that night owl happily staying up until the wee hours of the morning, working or reading or watching Netflix?
Chances are they could probably fall asleep at 10 p.m. instead of 3 a.m. if they said “no” to one more episode of their binge-worthy show, says Sheila Garland, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Memorial University.
Think about it this way: you’re in school and you have a big test to study for. So, you think, I’ll stay up all night and cram. You do it. That doesn’t mean you’re a night owl — it just means you stayed up to study.
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“You’ve got that bell curve,” Garland says. “Only a small percentage of people would actually be considered night owls and actually considered early birds.”
Most people probably fall somewhere in the intermediate range — your 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. sleepers — she explains, while somewhere between five and 10 per cent of people qualify as early birds and roughly 15 per cent as night owls.
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A night owl isn’t just a person who chooses to stay up, Garland says. It’s someone who stays alert, who says, “Night is my best time, it’s when I feel I’m the most productive and I get my best work done.”
It’s because their bodies operate on a different timetable and their brains don’t produce melatonin — a hormone that usually starts to increase later in the day, making you sleepy — until sometimes much later.
The technical term for the circadian rhythm your body is predisposed to is chronotype. In theory, your sleep chronotype determines whether you are more an early bird, a night owl, or somewhere in between.
In reality, Dr. Lim says, it’s not only about genetics.
“What makes somebody an early bird or a night owl at any given point in time is really an interplay of genetics and environmental factors,” he says. “Mostly light, but also feeding and exercise and your age.”
When is being an early bird or a night owl a problem?
Dr. Christopher Winter, president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine in Virginia, is considered a go-to expert when it comes to helping professional athletes tune their sleep for maximum athletic advantage.
He loves to ask people what their parents do for a living: night janitor or cardiothoracic surgeon?
“Our genes sort of push us into certain careers,” Winter says. He’s only half joking.
“You won’t find a whole lot of real morning-oriented people in cardiothoracic residency. Those people tend to be — at least in terms of sleep traits — short sleepers and night owls.”
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But what happens if you’re a night owl who needs to operate in an early-bird world?
“They can really struggle,” Winter says.
Delayed sleep phase disorder is used to describe the people who get enough sleep but often only hit their pillow between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. There is a corresponding syndrome for early birds: advanced sleep phase disorder is when a person gets enough sleep but often go to bed at an undesirably early hour, 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.
Given that the early birds can often function at an earlier hour, Garland says it’s much more common for night owls to come to her seeking treatment.
Switching from night owl to early bird
People see Garland for treatment because it’s a disorder, but really, she says, that’s a bit of a misnomer.
“It’s just a natural variant,” she says. “It only becomes a disorder when it’s impacting our ability to function.”
The first step is to figure out if you can adjust your environment. Is there any flexibility in your job? If there isn’t, Garland helps people give their body sleep signals at an earlier time. That means taking melatonin supplements early in the night and restricting a person’s light exposure.
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“We’re basically trying to trick their brain, saying, ‘This is when you should be starting to get sleepy,’” she says. In the morning, they’ll try the opposite trick: exposing the person to bright light.
It’s a gradual process, Garland says, one not unlike shifting time zones. You can try to make the change all in one night, but it’s usually better to slowly shift back one hour a day.
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It can be challenging to implement, Dr. Lim says, because we have bright lights on our computers, our televisions, and on our phones.
“It can be difficult to adhere to a rigid schedule of going to bed at a pretty good time, of avoiding devices, of avoiding light,” he says.
“It’s easy to say in principle, you avoid all these stimuli at night, but in practice, it isn’t so easy.”