The line at the cafe is longer than usual and I’m already late. Again. But I can’t start the day without coffee so I join the queue and will it to move quickly, yawning as I give myself my usual reprimand — tonight I will go to bed early. Tonight I will get a good sleep. I order a latte and request sugar for extra energy because I haven’t eaten breakfast. Caffeine transfusion complete, I retire to my desk and tap morosely at my keyboard for half an hour until my brain joins the rest of me in the land of the living.
If this morning routine sounds familiar, you might be among the 40 per cent of the adult population that identifies as a night owl. You prefer to sleep late, you’re slow to get going in the morning and around 10pm, when you should go to bed, you’re just getting your second wind. It’s not a new concept, the early bird/night owl divide, but an emerging area of sleep research is discovering there’s far more to the phenomenon than just preference, and that your sleep rhythm, or chronotype, can affect everything from your health and mood to the economy.
“A common misconception is that these two different groups are a choice – night owls just get up late because they’re lazy,” says Monash University researcher Dr Elise Facer- Childs. “That’s a real stigma in society that we need to come away from. Your chronotype is influenced by your environment as well as physiology, biology and some genetic links.”
And scientists now know there are fundamental differences between the brains of night owls and day larks.
“This is so relevant to every one of us,” says Dr Facer-Childs. “A lot of society is functioning at a sub-optimal level. A big proportion of both day larks and night owls aren’t sleeping as long as they should. How often have you heard people say, ‘I’ll sleep at the weekend, I’ve got too much to do’?”
Night owls face a double disadvantage because the nine-to-five workday forces them out of their natural sleep cycle, meaning what little shut-eye they do get occurs at the wrong time for their biorhythms.
“If somebody can’t get to sleep until one in the morning and they have to wake up at six for work, they’re waking up at the wrong time for their body,” Dr Facer-Childs says.
This has ramifications beyond productivity. Night owls aren’t as healthy as their lark friends. Studies suggest late risers have higher rates of anxiety, stress, depression, substance abuse, heart disease and type-2 diabetes. Researchers who examined nearly half a million participants of a UK Biobank study found night owls have a 10 per cent higher mortality rate than larks.
A study of 32,470 American nurses found the night owls were less likely to be married and more likely to be smokers and live alone. Yet another study, conducted by Western Sydney University, went so far as to suggest late sleepers tend to exhibit more of the ‘dark triad’ personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathic tendencies.
Given all this bad press, night owls might rightly wonder whether we can shift our body clocks, and the short answer is yes. Dr Facer-Childs recently undertook an experiment to see if she could change the sleeping patterns of extreme night owls. In just three weeks, she was able to get the participants out of bed a full two hours earlier than their normal waking time.
Given what I have learned about the health impacts of my night-owlish ways, I have decided to see if Dr Facer-Childs’ methods will work for me. So I begin my own sleep experiment.
The making of a lark
I don’t have much faith in my ability to stick to an earlier timetable, but everything Dr Facer-Childs’ study involved was a simple lifestyle intervention that should be easy for anyone to adopt. There was no fancy sleep tech, and no lab conditions.
“We wanted this to be as realistic for the participants as possible,” she says.
I won’t have a team of researchers helping me stick to my regime so I put a few extra provisions in place.
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