Like introverts, people who love to curse, and messy people, night owls have emerged as an underdog identity group at the center of a somewhat polarized conversation. For every article in my news feed urging owls to embrace their late-to-bed, late-to-rise ways, there's another one offering "7 ways to become an early riser."
A pro-owl argument might sound like this: Leave owls alone. Chronotype is a hard-wired trait. Sure, owls act like they're coming out of anesthesia when larks are peppy and productive, but they didn't choose to be night people living in a morning person's world. Plus, they're brimming with attributes early risers don't have: Research suggests that owls are more verbally creative, intelligent, emotionally intelligent, funny and fun (fine, that's a euphemism for promiscuous) than larks will ever be. Hoot, hoot. Advantage: owls.
The counter argument? Night owls might be droll geniuses, but in terms of health, career success and overall well-being, they get the short end of the stick. They're sicker, fatter, more depressed, and more prone to risky behavior than people who live for Soul Cycle at dawn. So, they should summon some self-discipline and get on a normal schedule.
As someone who enjoys jogging at 10pm, and has the dexterity of a Beanie Baby at 7am, I'm all for owl pride. But, I also recognize that I'm out of step with society. And I remember how I felt when, as a freelance writer, I went full-on owl. I loved keeping the hours my body craved, until I felt too lonely to enjoy my circadian freedom. I missed eating, sleeping, working and hanging out at the same time as other people. So what's a wise owl to do — live their circadian truth or find a way to become a lark? I didn't know, so I reached out to sleep researchers and chronobiologists, hoping they'd nudge me in one direction. Here's what I learned.
Owls should figure out if they're actually owls in the first place.
Not everyone who keeps late hours is a genuine owl, from a circadian perspective. "Some people who procrastinate late into the evening live a late-type life without actually being a late type," said Till Roenneberg, a chronobiologist at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ludwig Maximillian University in Germany, who developed the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire and wrote the book, Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You're So Tired.
We all have a chronotype, meaning a natural propensity to sleep at a particular time during a 24-hour period. In owls, circadian rhythms are shifted later, so levels of melatonin (the drowsiness-causing hormone triggered by darkness), among other circadian-controlled hormones and biological processes, don't ebb and flow in a pattern that corresponds to morning pep and evening fatigue. Extreme larks have the opposite issue — their bodies and brains are primed to get up before the sun does. Why are owls rhythms' shifted? Well, chronotype is primarily determined by three factors:
- Genetics: Researchers have linked owl-ness and lark-ness with a number of DNA mutations, many of which are near genes known to play a role in circadian rhythms. It's thought that up to 50 percent of circadian variation is heritable.
- Age: Over the course of your lifetime, your chronotype will probably change a few times. Most kids are larks, drift later during adolescence, and then re-discover the morning as adults.
- Light: This is the only variable we have much control over, even though owls and larks may be wired to respond to light differently.
Yet, it's also possible that your personality, not your circadian rhythms, has made you a creature of the night, explained Brant Hasler, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh's Psychiatry Department who focuses on the role of sleep and circadian rhythms in regulating mood and motivation."Eveningness is not purely driven by sleep and circadian factors," said Hasler. "It could also be driven in part by temperament and personality factors — evening types are more novelty-seeking, impulsive and sensation-seeking, which could be driving them to stay up later. If it's more of a personality factor than a sleep or circadian issue, then [that] has big implications on what you can do to change it."
A quick way to check your chronotype, Roenneberg said, is to test how long you can sleep in a well-lit room when the sun comes up (with the curtains open). If you wake up early, despite having gone to bed late, you're not a legit owl and your late bedtime is just a bad habit. True owls will snooze through the light. (For a more detailed chronotype analysis, fill out Roenneberg's questionnaire.)
You can change your chronotype, but it takes a lot of work and discipline.
Owls who force themselves onto a morning schedule aren't changing their chronotypes, said Roenneberg, they're just making themselves vulnerable to social jetlag, which happens when your biological clock and externally imposed schedule are out of sync.
Truly changing your chronotype requires changing your relationship with light. To lark-ify yourself, you need to expose yourself to as much bright light as possible in the morning, and make sure that none of your devices at home give off blue light after sunlight. And, you need to stick to this regimen every day, forever and always, said Roenneberg. While it would take a few days to move your sleep schedule an hour earlier, you can snap back into your owl ways almost immediately: "If you fail, even once, you'd flip back," said Roenneberg.
How do you develop a new light regimen? You could go spend a week or two in mother nature, free from text alerts and bedside lamps. Or, assuming you don't have the ability or desire to move outdoors, a good first step might be ditching your curtains. "No one should sleep in a dark room," Roenneberg said, explaining that nowadays, we basically live in constant dim light. By controlling light in our environment, we get far less light than we should during the day (up to a thousand-fold less), and far more than we should at night.
Some experts also recommend taking a 30-minute morning walk (without sunglasses, longer in winter), and eating a high-tryptophan breakfast. But a true chronotype about-face might require light therapy, which typically entails staring at a light box for 30 minutes every morning. It's easier said than done, explained Brant Hasler: "The catch-22 with bright light therapy is that, when people are already struggling to get to their morning obligations on time, how are they going to fit in an extra half-hour of sitting in front of a light box?"
Fortunately, companies including Re-Timer and Luminette have introduced light-therapy goggles and visors that let people soak up light while going about their routines. For anyone curious about light therapy, Hasler says The Center for Environmental Therapeutics has useful info.
Extreme owls need "extra pushes" to make the switch.
If you sleep from 1am to 9am, then you're just a regular, non-special owl. But, if you're more of a 5am-to-1pm kind of person, you might have Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder, and qualify as an extreme owl. "One reason someone might have a Delayed Sleep Phase is because they have a particularly long circadian period, and their clock runs well over 24 hours," said Hasler. DSPH, which affects about 1 in 600 people, is most common in teens, who often grow out of it.
Hasler says it takes "extra pushes" to get extreme owls on normal, morning schedules. But, he's done it successfully, using a combination of bright-light therapy and melatonin. While melatonin has become an exceedingly popular natural sleep aid, most people throw back the wrong dose, at the wrong time. Here's the right way to take melatonin, according to Hasler:
For shifting schedules earlier, melatonin is not taken close to bedtime, but is optimally effective more like 5-7 hours before bedtime. Also, the ever-increasing dosages being marketed are inappropriate for most purposes (and can be counter-productive), and there’s no biological basis for sustained release formulations that I’m aware of. Instead, doses in the 0.5-3 mg are plenty. Actually, 0.5 mg (if you can find it) is even better than higher doses (e.g., 3 mg), because it’s less likely to cause sleepiness when taken that early.
But, in cases of DSPH, melatonin may not be the only hormone that needs to be resynchronized, said Nik Trajanovic, a researcher at the sleep and alertness clinic at Toronto Western Hospital. "Hormones regulating the neurological system, and others regulating the immune or metabolic systems, are also in play and need to be synchronized...there is no universal approach that would solve every case of sleep phase shift."
Owls with insomnia might want to try behavioral therapy (before they buy light-therapy goggles).
Having a certain chronotype won't protect you against insomnia, which afflicts larks, owls and everyone in between. But, being an owl might make you less able to withstand the effects of the can't-sleep disease. In one study on insomnia patients, sleep clinicians found that owls, despite getting more sleep than larks or middle-of-the-road types, still reported more insomnia-related health issues, including depression. These findings are consistent with other research suggesting that owls need more sleep, and struggle more with sleep loss, than larks do.
If that's not reason enough for owl insomniacs to seek treatment, Hasler's research suggests that behavioral insomnia therapy can do more for owls than help them get to bed. Namely, it might push their sleep schedules earlier. In a meta-analysis (a study of studies), Hasler and colleagues looked at three sleep-treatment studies involving insomniacs and veterans with sleep disturbances. The treatments included CBTi, a non-drug behavioral regimen, Ambien, Prazosin (typically prescribed for nightmare disorders) and the mood-stabilizer Lexapro.
Many of the participants who'd done CBT(i) saw their sleep schedules shift earlier, but those who'd tried pharma fixes didn't see the same circadian changes. These changes, it's worth pointing out, were not the goal of the studies; they were an indirect byproduct of treating insomnia. The results don't mean that six weeks of CBT(i) will convert a lifelong owl into a true lark. But, they do suggest that treating sleep-behavior problems might result in a minor-to-moderate schedule shift. Hasler's team proposed a few hypotheses to explain their findings, including the possibility that "insomnia symptoms may have been masking the true circadian preference of some participants, and that successful behavioral treatment resulted in unmasking of relative tendencies toward morningness."
Why didn't the sleep meds have the same chronotype impact as CBT(i)? Well, Ambien, for instance, is a hypnotic sedative that helps people conk out. But, it doesn't directly target the circadian system. CBT(i), Hasler said, actually does consider circadian processes — not by altering biology (since it's a drug-free treatment), but by helping people establish a consistent wake-time, as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rhythms.
Ultimately, experts think society should change, not owls.
At least, some experts. Roenneberg says that, as an employer, he would stand up in front of all his employees and tell them he doesn't want them to come in after waking up using an alarm clock. Instead, he'd want them to come in after rising naturally, because that means employees will take less sick days and be more productive, among other desirable outcomes.
Roenneberg is the lead researcher at the B-Society, an international group "working towards making a flexible society, which can accommodate different types of families, ways of working and circadian rhythms."
And, in general, he thinks it's time for everyone to become more chrono-aware, given that chronotype affects more than when we sleep. "Practically everything in our bodies [runs on a schedule dictated] by our body clocks, not the external time," said Roenneberg. "Every medical provider should take into account a [patient's] individual chronotype, because if you tell someone to come in at 8am to take blood, the results could be hugely different in an extreme early type vs. a late type."
Hasler's position is similar, but slightly toned down: "The bottom line is that I think it's possible to change someone's chronotype, from a circadian perspective. We have good tools for that. But at the same time, it requires a lot of effort and motivation, and I think system-level and policy-level changes are important to consider first, particularly for our vulnerable adolescents, but also for adults who fall into these [super-late-type] categories, too."
Some owls might be just fine keeping different hours than their partners, family members and friends.
Despite all this talk about owls shifting there schedules, there may be benefits to having an owl in the house. "Two people who live on different schedules should have babies together," said Roenneberg. "They would be one of the few couples to get a good night's sleep, because they'd alternate shifts [for childcare]. And, if they don’t want to have babies, it’s still advantageous because one of the biggest complaints in relationships is that people don’t have enough time for themselves."
For now, I'm not one of those owls.
I agree that society should be more owl-friendly, particularly to teens. (Back in the early '00s, when I took my SATs at 8:30am in a mental fog, I skipped a page of questions. When I played soccer at 8:30am in a physical fog, I threw up on the sidelines from exhaustion. These seem like unnecessary hiccups, right?)
But, at the moment, I don't have a baby, I don't work the night-shift and I do have larks in my life. And, insufficient alone time isn't high on my list of grievances. So, despite the fact that I turn into a hilarious, insightful, perky genius after the sun goes down, I'm not inclined to lean into my owlness. Since light pills haven't been invented yet (pharmaceutical light, a prominent sleep researcher told me, is the next great challenge in sleep science), I'm taking small steps to reduce my social jet lag: I ordered a graduated light alarm clock that my boyfriend and internet strangers swear by, and downloaded blue-light blocking apps for my devices. Fl.ux has been great, for the week I've used it.
Regardless of what happens, I will not try to persuade anyone to "learn to love the morning, with these 5 easy tips!" because I'm still an owl and owls don't do that.