You know that feeling when you pop out of bed in the morning, throw open the blinds, make your own breakfast and check a few items off your to-do list before work? Yeah, we don’t either.
While those people might exist, (we’re still skeptical) many of us fall into the category of immediately saying “Nope.” anytime we are awoken before the sun is up, or at least take a few minutes to get going.
While some like to chalk this up to a bad attitude or laziness, there’s a chance it’s written in your DNA according to scientists. Author of “The Power of When” Dr. Breus, for example, says which chronotype (or type of sleeper) you are could have an effect on your body’s natural tendency to sleep, among other factors.
That’s why we looked deeply into the research, to guide you through the science, the theories, and some potential ways you could make the most of your sleep and waking life.
Overview of Circadian Rhythms
Sound a little confusing? Let’s start with the circadian rhythm. Also known as our internal body clock, this sixth sense is wired into our DNA and triggers responses in our bodies that make us sleepy, alert, and can even affect our ability to think straight.
Have you ever fallen asleep in the middle of a sentence late at night? How about during an exciting movie? Your circadian rhythm was probably triggering a drowsy response based on the time of day.
Our early human ancestors benefitted from this internal timekeeping because it meant they were awake and alert during daylight while many predators slept, and were able to consolidate sleep into one block of time during the night when other activities were limited, rather than resting sporadically.
While this may have been convenient for our predecessors, in a world where we usually need to be alert early in the morning and sometimes throughout the night, having a synced up circadian rhythm can be difficult to maintain. That’s why many people rely on light therapy, melatonin, or early morning walks to help their bodies know what time it is, even if they haven’t slept enough.
While this could be the first you’ve heard of it, this rhythm is important for hormone function, mood and temperature regulation, metabolism, and proper rejuvenation. That’s a lot of responsibility for a clock we can’t even see without a DNA probe. When it gets out of sync it can lead to some issues.
When you travel through different time zones, it can take a while for your circadian rhythm to catch up to local time, meaning you might be drowsy or experience insomnia for a few days. This can also happen if you work a night shift or drink a lot of caffeine that prevents sleep.
If within a few days of returning to a normal sleep schedule you still aren’t tired until late and feel drowsy during the day, some research suggests it could be due to your chronotype, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Sleep and Genetics Are Linked: Recent Research
Some researchers theorize that humans evolved to have different sleeping patterns to stay safe. By sleeping in shifts, we may have kept better watch over our communities at night. According to the research, the evolutionary changes of your ancestors could have carried down to you.
So while you might work a nine to five job, you could still be rising at the same time your hunter-gatherer ancestors might have. So the next time your boss reprimands you for being late to an early morning meeting, take comfort knowing your one hundred and eighth great grandfather could have saved his from a lion by taking the night watch. Probably not, but whatever gets you through the day.
Additionally, this means it’s likely one or both of your parents have the same sleep type as you, according to Dr. Matthew Walker’s book, “Why We Sleep.” If your sleep schedule aligns well with your work and you don’t find yourself sleeping in too long on your days off, this hereditary gene is great news. For the rest of us, stay tuned for the facts.
Recent studies show that there is a correlation between your sleeping habits and your genes. However, the sleep gene alleles have more to do with sleep homeostasis (which is just a fancy way to say when you start to feel sleepy) than the circadian rhythm.
For example, someone with the gene for a short sleep latency (or later chronotype) would feel tired around 9 pm, so she would go to sleep and wake up well-rested early the next morning, reinforcing in her mind that she is a morning person when in reality she just falls asleep faster than her peers. It’s written in her DNA.
While some studies claim to have found correspondences in DNA and individual circadian rhythms, these are hard to back up and rarely occur twice. So most likely, while your genes may affect when you feel the most tired, most of the research points to the idea of variances in sleep homeostasis, not in internal timekeeping. Essentially your body knows what time it is, but still refuses to make you sleepy.
This idea is somewhat disputed by Berkely professor Dr. Matthew Walker who feels the circadian rhythm syncs to your chronotype, as mentioned in his book. However, he agrees that fixing the circadian rhythm or our genes isn’t the solution so much as changing societal expectations, as he mentioned in chapter two of “Why We Sleep.”
This is important because normal techniques to adjust or sync your circadian rhythm probably won’t work to change your sleep schedule anyway because your watch isn’t broken, it’s just programmed differently. It would be like trying to wind a digital watch. While you probably can’t change your genes, luckily there are some ways to make the most of them.
If you’ve ever heard of being an early bird or a night owl, that’s pretty similar to Breus’s idea of chronotypes. As we just discussed, certain DNA traits translate to our sleeping patterns and behavior. A University of Surrey study suggests there are at least three chronotypes that are identifiable through our genes: delayed, normal, and early, with a little less than half falling into the normal category, with the rest distributed among early and delayed.
According to the textbook “Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine,” the irregular chronotypes could result in a circadian rhythm disorder, especially when it comes to navigating the light/dark schedule. This means you could eventually confuse your body to the point of not knowing what time it is or when it’s time for bed. This could happen from continued sleep deprivation for a night owl, or from waking up before the sun for an early bird.
So now that you understand why you might sleep differently than others, you probably want to know what to do about it so you avoid the potential dangers of your sleep habits. You aren’t alone. We’re all different, and while some of us might not be early to bed and early to rise, we could still be healthy, wealthy, and wise with a few tricks: at least according to Dr. Michael Breus’s new research.
Who Is Dr. Michael Breus?
Dr. Michael Breus thinks that while you can’t change your chronotype, it’s at least possible to manage it. Breus is a clinical psychologist who appears regularly on the T.V. show, “Dr. Oz.” His “Power of When” test has been circulating the internet recently, promising better sleep once you determine which chronotype you are. The catch? You’ll have to buy the book to determine how to optimize your sleep and your daily schedule.
If this sounds a little too convenient, you have the right to be skeptical, but the idea of varied sleep patterns didn’t start with the sleep doctor, Michael Breus. He did, however, recently linked these chronotypes to behavioral patterns and feels he can identify which one you are from a short test.
So are you Dolphin, Lion, Bear, or Wolf? Breus’s test will sort you into one of four categories that symbolizes your chronotype. Along with your classification, he’ll tell you which notable people he has sorted into your category, and give you a few traits that correspond with your chronotype.
In the days following the quiz, Dr. Breus will send you a few emails helping you learn more about yourself and your sleep patterns, but most of the information is in the book. Let’s see what he has to say about each.
If you’re a Dolphin:
You’re among notable members including Charles Dickens and Williams Shakespeare, according to Dr. Breus. Named for the mammals that only sleep with half of their brain at a time, this chronotype typically struggles to nap and wakes up feeling unrefreshed from sleep. This means they are generally tired throughout the day with a spurt of energy later in the evening.
If you’re a Lion:
You’re like Benjamin Franklin, congratulations. You are also the only chronotype that Breus says has a high life satisfaction. You tend to be up early, full of energy, sharp in the morning, with a goal-oriented lifestyle. These are the leaders who get things done without getting distracted along the way.
Analytical and organized, these people prioritize their health and work hard. They tend to have the ideal setup for normal societal expectations.
If You’re a Bear:
You’re in the camp with Stephen King and Jeff Bezos. With a normal day-night schedule following the solar and lunar schedule, these people tend to sleep well even though it takes a little while to get going in the morning. Playful and affectionate, these people generally lead a healthy lifestyle, are good students, and team players.
If You’re a Wolf:
You’re essentially a night owl, and according to the Power of When Quiz, Barack Obama and Elon Musk fit the bill. Behaving somewhat nocturnally, your energy level is usually highest later in the day or early evening. These people tend to be fearless, insightful, intuitive, but somewhat out of sync with most of the world.
Is It Legit?
If being told about your character flaws and personality traits after a few questions about your daily routine is a bit too much for you, you’re not alone. However, before you chalk it all up to baloney, there is a surprising amount of research to support Dr. Breus’s assessment.
Regarding the behavioral correspondence, a Swiss study suggests a correlation could exist between sleep and attitude because the timing of sleep is important for the regulation of mood. This could have two explanations: either being out of sync with the rest of the world can put us at risk for depression, or going to sleep late causes us to miss out on REM periods that can help regulate happy hormones. Maybe it’s a combination of the two, but we’d have to see more research.
When it comes to health risks, a Harvard study shows that the genetic traits that influence our sleep patterns can hold clues about our health as well. One study shows that having a later sleep clock than others leads to a greater risk for diabetes than the general population, which correlates to Breus’s findings.
So it seems that both mood and health concerns can be related to chronotype, but should we still be skeptical when it comes to character traits? One study says maybe not. According to a Northwestern University study, those with an out of sync chronotype may experience social jet lag, meaning they are constantly trying to change their sleep to fit work or social obligations, but on their days off they tend to sleep in longer. This constant shifting of the circadian cycle can lead to smoking and alcohol abuse, caffeine use, and even weight gain.
So does this mean you should just dive into the book and self identify as one of four animals for the rest of your life? That much is up to you, but if you’re struggling we say it can’t hurt to give it a try. The good news is, the research supports the idea that a few tips and tricks from the experts could help you stop the constant circadian yoyo from your weekends to weekdays and make the most of your chronotype.
The World Loves Early Risers.
Is There Bias?
From 8 am meetings to rush hour traffic, early risers tend to have a leg up when it comes to functioning in modern society. If you don’t find yourself among them, it could help to know that if you aren’t bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at five in the morning, it’s not entirely your fault.
When it comes to health, those of us who aren’t morning larks or lions may have a few health risks to watch out for such as diabetes, depression, obesity, and substance abuse. This much is supported by a variety of studies so this might be one observation you shouldn’t ignore.
So if it seems overall better to be a morning person, is it possible to change? Dr. Matt Walker says you can’t choose to become a morning person, as your preferred schedule is literally in your DNA. Before you pity yourself for your poor genetic luck, remember there can be some great traits that accompany your sleep styles, such as good attention to detail, creativity, and great people skills according to Breus’s research.
There are even studies that revolve around the negative effects of trying to be a morning person. If you’re struggling to keep up, however, we have a few tips that could help you survive as a night owl in a morning lark’s world.
How to Cope in a Morning Lark World
If you struggle to wake up with your first alarm and the idea of a morning without coffee sounds like a horror film, we’ve researched some options for you. Dr. Matt Walker recommends finding an eight hour period where you can sleep at your body’s preferred time slot to get the right amount of REM and longwave sleep.
While in normal chronotypes the first half of the night is dedicated to long-wave sleep and the second half and early morning hours fill your REM quota, Walker says with later chronotypes, your brain may get the same effect later in the morning as long as you get eight hours.
While this may be optimal, we know it’s not easy in modern society, which is why we researched a few tips and tricks that could help you cope without trying to change your chronotype.
Flexible Remote Work
To follow Dr. Walker and Dr. Breus’s advice, you may need to either adjust your work schedule or find a new job. Coming from an all-remote company, we can recommend the benefits of a flexible working lifestyle, and as more and more companies embrace the benefits of working from home, there are lots of opportunities to try it out.
Working remotely can give you the freedom you need to work when you are most alert and creative, without the pressure of having to fit someone else’s schedule, meaning you can give your work your best self, as long as you have the dedication to do so. While working remotely isn’t for everyone, for early risers and night owls, it could be a great solution to your sleeping problems.
Plan for Your Highest Productivity
Whatever chronotype you are, we recommend making a plan to optimize the hours you are most alert. If you tend to be alert later in the day, see if you can plan your important meetings for closer to the end of the workday while completing more menial tasks that take less brainpower first. This way, you’ll be able to maximize your productivity and not waste time not getting anywhere on projects that demand your full attention.
If you tend to have a regular sleeping schedule, you might try doing things the other way around. Either way, we want you aiming for your highest potential. This way, even if you can’t accomplish everything on your to-do list, you’ve still given your best effort.
Once you leave work, those who stay up later may want to accomplish more important tasks at home before taking the time to come down from their day. This way you may be able to relax and get to sleep easier later. Again, morning people may benefit from accomplishing these tasks earlier in the morning before heading to work, leaving room for individual adaptation.
Learn More: How to Fix Your Sleep Schedule
This could especially come in handy for dolphin and wolf chronotypes, and maybe even bears. In the early morning hours of work, placing a light therapy lamp in front of your face could help speed up your biological clock and encourage your brain to wake up. These boxes are often used to sync up circadian rhythms by simulating outlook lighting, and while it won’t change your chronotype, it could provide some waking benefits in the morning.
If you are strapped for cash or don’t want a bright light on your desk, you could always try opening the blinds or taking a walk when the sun is bright for a similar effect.
Many people take melatonin supplements to combat the effects of jetlag, insomnia, or just to help them stay asleep. It’s important to remember that melatonin is a hormone that helps your body sync up and know it’s dark outside, and it doesn’t cause you to fall asleep. If you’re struggling with a nighttime chronotype, this could be a short-term solution for an early morning event, though most of the experts recommend sleeping when your body wants to so you can optimize health benefits.
If you are going to take melatonin, the best time is about two hours before you go to sleep. Once you take it, it’s a good idea to limit phone use and begin to wind down to let it take effect.
Set a Consistent Schedule
In Breus’s book, he recommends a specific optimal schedule for each chronotype. Whether you choose to follow his advice or not, being consistent is usually a good thing for your circadian rhythm. By setting distinct meal times, breaks, and work hours, you’ll learn more about your body’s natural tendencies and should be able to determine what works best for you individually.
It’s important to note here that being a Wolf or a Dolphin isn’t the same as experiencing chronic insomnia. With insomnia, outside factors usually contribute to difficulty falling asleep, while having a night owl chronotype genetically means you take longer to get sleepy or fall asleep and it’s just in your genetics. Before deciding that there is nothing you can do about it, it’s a good idea to see a doctor and discuss potential external causes for your sleep problems.
While the science behind chronotype is often confusing and complex, we hope this article has broken it down a little and steered you in the right direction to better sleep and better function in a world that rewards the early riser. With a little help from the experts and minimal adjustments, we believe you have the power to see a difference for better rest.
Lead Product Tester
Julia is the Lead Reviewer at Sleep Advisor, specializing in testing out mattresses and sleep accessories – she’s in the right line of work, because she loves to sleep.