April 24, 2014
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Mental Health

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How a night owl can wake up in an early-bird world

Did you know that our days are organized by not one but three different clocks? The solar clock marks the rise and set of the sun over the 24 hours of a day. The social clock is the one that we follow for work and school. And our biological clock is our internal time-keeper, the one that tells us when to go to sleep and when to wake up.

For 70% of us, the three clocks tick along, mostly in sync. We get up in the morning. We're sometimes tired, but we muddle through. About 15% of us are "morning people." Also called "larks," these are the early-to-bed, early-to-rise types who thrive at dawn and fall asleep before the late shows start. And then there are the night owls, those 15% of us who don't really hit our stride until the PM.

It can be tough to be a night owl in an early-bird world. Only one clock really matters: the alarm clock. School bells and church bells ring shortly after dawn (and sometimes before). And the whole 9-to-5 workaday routine means many shops and offices close up in the late afternoon. Aside from the graveyard shift, evening classes, and the occasional 24-hour doughnut shop, the world seems built to suit early risers.

Owls are on the dark side of much research, too. Compared to larks, owls may be more prone to depression. They may also be more likely than larks to be sensation- and thrill-seekers and to struggle with self-control. Owls slump with more frequent daytime sleepiness, despite drinking more coffee and other caffeinated drinks than do larks. Owls may struggle academically, and their diets may struggle, too, as they eat more fast food than larks. Female owls may even suffer through more nightmares and menstrual symptoms.

There are a couple of bright sides for night owls! Research has disproved Benjamin Franklin's "early to bed, early to rise" quote: It does not necessarily make one "healthy, wealthy, and wise." Furthermore, night owls are noted for their sense of humour and creative thinking skills that allow them to devise original ideas and to adapt to difficult situations.

Your internal clock could very well be genetic. Trying to change will be difficult, but it is not impossible. So, if you are a night owl who has to get by in an early bird world, put those adaptive skills of yours to work:

Set sunrise, sunset goals. If you really want to wake up earlier, you will need to make a gradual shift in your sleep-wake schedule. First track your normal sleeping patterns to determine how many hours of nightly sleep you need in order to wake up feeling rested. Most of us, whether larks or owls or otherwise, need 7 to 9 hours of sleep. Then set a bedtime and wake-up goal that allows you to sleep as long as you need to but still wake up at the time you must. Do not slack on this sleep schedule! If you stay up a half-hour late here or sleep in an extra 10 minutes there, that little bit of sleep debt can add up to big exhaustion. And you will be back where you started. The adjustment may be hard, but you will begin to get used to it.

Rise. Then shine. Night-time darkness kick-starts your body's melatonin and the hormone helps to lull you to sleep. When we awaken to the morning light, melatonin halts. At the same time, our bodies experience a burst of cortisol, another hormone. This hormone makes us more alert and helps us to deal with the day ahead. Larks are at a natural advantage, since research indicates they wake up with more cortisol than night owls do. But bright morning light can give cortisol a boost - for larks and owls alike. Light also suppresses the release of melatonin. Open the blinds and drapes in your bedroom at night so that when the sun rises, it will stream in and help you awaken more naturally. Even better: Go for a quick morning walk to expose yourself to the brightest of morning light.

Eat breakfast. Once you've gotten your hit of morning light, breakfast can keep your energy flowing. Researchers in Japan found that children who ate a nutritionally well-balanced breakfast, including protein, got better sleep and tended to be more "morning-typed." While this research specifically measured results in young children, a healthy breakfast provides energy that can help you to be more alert and able to concentrate.

Plan your day around your strengths. 10 AM not your finest hour? Fill the morning with mindless tasks that require little concentration. Set aside the big, important projects for the time of day when you feel sharper and more focused. Reverse that advice if you're an early bird!

Wait till you're older. When we hit adolescence, many of us become temporary teen night owls, burning the midnight oil and sleeping in later. And as we get older, we all tend to become more lark-like. Maybe these age-shifts in our internal clocks explain the bleary eyed-students in first period study hall and the "early bird special" phenomenon among senior citizens!

Amy Toffelmire


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