Early Bird or Night Owl? How to define and manage your chronotype
Sleep is often thought of as a one-size-fits-all function. But the reality is that our requirements can be very different and individual. Sleep scientist and ambassador for Mammoth, Dr Nicola Barclay, explains how you can improve sleep by accommodating your body’s natural cycle.
We’ve all used the phrase “early bird” or “night owl” to describe what we feel is our natural sleeping pattern. What we may not realise, however, is that by using these phrases we’re referring to a genetic trait that characterises our relationship with sleep: our chronotype.
While generic sleep guidance is undoubtedly an important part of our education: setting a routine, avoiding caffeine late at night and keeping your bedroom cool and dark; the truth is that we all sleep differently. In the same way that we all have different body shapes, different food preferences and even different metabolic rates, our sleep requirements are all inherently individual. And the sooner you can understand your own rhythms and requirements, the quicker you can alter your routine to optimise your rest and recovery period.
What is chronotype?
To put it simply, your chronotype refers to your natural inclination regarding the times of the day when you prefer to sleep, and those when you feel most alert and energised. Your chronotype can shift over the lifespan; generally speaking, school-aged children have a tendency towards “morningness”, and the teenage years are defined as a time when the circadian rhythm undergoes a huge shift towards “eveningness” (i.e. the point at which we are most inclined to go to bed and wake up late).
This is supported by a substantial amount of research, for example, a US study by Fischer et al (2017) found that both age and sex showed a distinct relationship with chronotype, confirming that dramatic shifts occurred across childhood and adolescence. The study found the average peak in ‘eveningness’ to be 18.4 years.
So, late nights and late rises are typical for the developing adolescent and driven by underlying physiology. However, many teenagers forego their usual late nights and lie-ins as they get older, with a natural tendency towards “morningness” shaping our lives as we age. The researchers also demonstrated that, before the age of 40 years, men are more oriented towards eveningness than women, yet this pattern reverses after 40.
Despite these expected shifts, our individual clocks may tick to their own rhythm, and it’s safe to say that most of us have a fairly set idea of when we like to sleep and when we like to wake up. Your chronotype may make itself known in simple routine factors, such as whether you naturally wake up early, whether you have to set multiple alarms, and whether you exercise before or after work.
What’s the use of knowing your chronotype?
Whatever system of categorisation you use – a night owl, evening-type, or conversely an early bird, or morning-type – knowing your relationship with sleep is key to making the most of it.
In an ideal world, we would be permitted to go to bed whenever we want, waking naturally feeling refreshed every day. However, working culture doesn’t permit this. Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, most of us still need to get to work by 9am or earlier. A night owl suffers more with this, resulting in what we call “social jetlag”. This refers to the feeling of exhaustion that comes with having our sleep pattern dictated to us, rather than being guided by our natural body clock.
One study by the University of Adelaide and the Sleep Health Foundation (2018) found that one in three participants suffered with social jet lag, the consequences of which could mean reduced productivity, irritability, overreliance on caffeine and frequently being late to work.
However, this isn’t to say that early birds don’t suffer too. People who are more naturally inclined to wake up early may find themselves face to face with the dreaded afternoon slump. What’s more, they can also struggle with roles that offer less routine, such as shift work.
How to manage your chronotype
Finding a routine that works for you is key to managing your chronotype. Let’s say you’re a natural night owl who works a typical 9am to 5pm day. Aiming to wake up before 7am is probably unrealistic, but if you set yourself a wake up time of between 7–7.30am, this should give you enough time to enjoy a protein-rich breakfast before getting dressed and heading out the door. This routine allows you to conform with your natural pattern of staying up until 11pm. Other good morning practices for night owls include, if possible, walking to work, and letting natural light into your home in the morning.
Light is one of the most influential factors in regulating our sleep–wake cycles. Exposure to sunlight stimulates the production of the hormone serotonin in the brain, which is associated with feelings of positivity, rejuvenation and energy. As the day winds down, dimming the lights and avoiding bright screens in the hour before bed will help to stimulate the release of melatonin. This hormone acts almost as a counterpart to serotonin, encouraging our brains to prepare for sleep. So, no matter what your chronotype is, natural light in the morning and a lack of light in the evening will help you set up a schedule you can stick to.
Both of these hormones are key for regular, healthy sleep. The importance of these hormones has been shown countless times in research. Impaired serotonin function can be one contributor to feelings of fatigue, depression, anxiety and disrupted sleep. On the other hand, differences in the amount and timing of release of melatonin can contribute to various sleep disorders (i.e. extreme chronotypes such as individuals with advanced or delayed sleep-wake phase disorder).
A meta-analysis of the use of melatonin in delayed sleep–wake phase disorder showed that melatonin can help some people fall asleep more quickly, particularly if timed appropriately. Though caution should be taken when using supplements to help your sleep, and consultation with your GP is a must. Adapting your sleep–wake routine should be the first step towards healthy sleep.
For example, how you act later on in the day is just as important as your morning routine when it comes to managing your chronotype. Early risers should aim to get their most demanding work done before 2pm, where possible, leaving the more admin-related tasks for later in the afternoon. Exercise should also be a component in any sleep–wake schedule. If you’re an early bird, you’ll probably prefer exercising in the morning before work, leaving your evenings free for relaxation. For night owls however, exercising between 1pm and 4pm has been shown to advance the circadian rhythm and so can be a good way to exhaust yourself in preparation for a slightly earlier night. Though exercising later than 7pm may shift your bedtime even later.
Of course, work, social and household commitments often mean that creating and sticking to the perfect schedule for our chronotype isn’t always an option. But where possible, forming your daily structure around your natural relationship with sleep will help you feel more energised.
Taking a structured approach: tips for sleeping smarter
Although the daily grind can make it difficult to conform to your own chronotype, research suggests that you should do your best to accommodate your natural inclination towards sleep. If you’re a natural night owl, aiming to be asleep by 9pm and up at 5am for an intense exercise routine is likely to lead to failure. Knowing your chronotype is the first step to creating a daily routine that works for you.
Finding a routine means you’ll know when to step up your productivity and when to take a backseat, allowing yourself allotted break periods throughout the day for an energising snack or strategic caffeine boost. Listen to your body when it comes to caffeine – some of us are extremely sensitive to this type of stimulant. Indeed, many people find that an espresso after lunch can still have its alerting effects at bedtime. Once you’ve found your routine, sleep experts suggest that you should stick to it across the week – even at the weekends. Your body doesn’t take into account the working week and so to optimise rest and recovery, aim to keep things structured.
Sacrificing sleep during the week and trying to make up the deficit on the weekend is less beneficial in the long term than simply working hard to improve sleep duration and quality over the course of the week.
Doctor Nicola Barclay is a departmental lecturer in sleep medicine at the University of Oxford and a sleep ambassador for Mammoth, the sleep and comfort specialists behind the Bhealthy range. Every mattress in the Bhealthy range features Mammoth’s cooling Medical Grade™ Foam, the only sleep technology of its kind to be developed in partnership with the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. Shop the Bhealthy range