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We’ve all heard the old saying about the early bird and the worm. Which begs the question: is it true? Does being an early-to-bed, early-to-rise sleeper give you an advantage? Or is it healthier to be a night owl? How much does it matter when you wake up, and why does it vary so much from person to person? Read on as we explore this fascinating topic.
Your Inner Alarm Clock
You can't wind it, snooze it, or hear it tick, but there's an alarm clock inside your body. It's called a circadian rhythm and helps your body regulate its sleep cycle. Circadian rhythms impact how your body produces melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy. A big factor in how your body produces melatonin is light. When it's dark outside, that often sends a signal to the body to start winding down for rest; when the sun begins to rise, that sends another signal to your brain to turn off the steady drip of melatonin. The key word here is “often”: no two circadian rhythms are alike. Some folks don’t respond to sunrises and sunsets in the same way. That’s where your chronotype comes in.
Chronotypes are your personal circadian rhythm. While they can often be influenced by genetics (if your family is full of early risers, there's a good chance you are one as well), your chronotype is unique to you. Your chronotype dictates how alert and energetic you feel throughout the day, depending on when melatonin gets switched on or off. This personal rhythm isn’t constant throughout your life: it can vary as you age. Teenagers, for example, tend to stay up later and need more sleep than kids and adults because their chronotype hardwired them to be night owls.
Can You Change Your Rhythm?
The short answer is yes. The trick is to do it gradually. Wake up and go to bed a little earlier (or later) everyday. Use blackout curtains and sleep masks to block out light and stimulate the production of melatonin. It will take awhile for your body to gradually adjust to your new cycle. Be attentive to how you feel physically and mentally during this change. If you continue to feel sluggish or mentally unfocused after a while you may need to switch back to your old circadian rhythm.
Is It Better To Be An Early Bird?
Not necessarily. In terms of physical and mental health, early birds and night owls are about equal. The big difference is social: our work culture is oriented around early birds. The 9-5 work day benefits morning people more than late risers. This cuts both ways, however: while an early schedule benefits your professional life, night owls have the advantage when it comes to having an active social life AFTER work.
What Could Disrupt My Sleep Cycle?
Your natural rhythm can be disrupted by several factors. Anyone who's traveled overseas has experienced the disorientation of jet lag. When you travel to different time zones it takes time for your inner clock to adjust to the new setting. Sleeping too much can also throw off your cycle. But probably the biggest monkey wrench in your sleep cycle is something you probably use everyday: your cell phone. Avoid using devices and screens before bedtime. The blue light that emits from smartphones, tablets, and TVs can mess with your circadian rhythm; your body mistakes the artificial light for the real thing.
The Most Important Thing
When you wake up is not nearly as important as how long you sleep. Early birds and night owls alike need 7-9 hours of sleep a day to function at their peak capacity. Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can lead to a lack of energy, mood changes, a reduced attention span, and worsened memory.
Article by Austin Brietta