Are you definitely a night owl or an early bird? Maybe you can’t sleep past 5:30 AM, or you can’t go to bed before 2 AM. Some of us have very clear preferences when it comes to what time we get up and when we go to bed. Other people seem to be more adaptable, able to change their schedules, at least somewhat, without major consequences.
Have you ever wondered why you want to sleep and get up when you do? It all comes back to your chronotype. If you’re not sure what that is or how to leverage it to live your best life, here’s everything you need to know.
What is a Chronotype?
While it may sound intimidating, “your chronotype” is just a fancy way of saying “your preferences for when you like to wake up and fall asleep.” It goes back to the Greek word “chronos,” which refers to time.
Most people fall into one of two chronotypes. They are either early birds, who prefer to get up early and go to bed early, or night owls, who prefer to go to bed late and get up late, too. Some people say that there are other variations, that not all early birds are the same, for instance, but these are the two main types.
What Causes Your Chronotype?
Your chronotype is determined by your circadian rhythm. This is basically your body’s clock, and it tells you when to get up and when to go to sleep. It also determines things like when you are hungry, what times during the day you experience a lull in energy, and when your body produces certain substances like neurotransmitters and hormones.
The circadian rhythm is guided, more or less, by light. When the light goes away, the body wants to sleep. When the light comes back, it’s time to wake up. However, not everyone responds to light in the same ways, or at the same time. Some people begin to feel sleep within an hour or two after sunset, while others don’t feel sleepy for several hours or more.
Indoor lighting, especially the blue lights that come from screens, can influence this to a certain extent. If we flood ourselves with indoor lights and screens, we will probably struggle to sleep at an early hour. However, blue light doesn’t seem to influence chronotype, as early birds still want to fall asleep earlier (even if they can’t) than night owls.
Instead, research shows some evidence that chronotype is genetically determined. A recent study asked people to report whether they were night owls or early birds. Researchers found several 15 genetic variants that seemed to be associated with being an early bird. Seven of these were located close to genes already known to influence the circadian rhythm. While this study isn’t definitive, it indicates that your chronotype is influenced, if not determined, by your genes.
What are the Differences Between the Chronotypes?
There are some interesting and scientifically-backed differences between early birds and night owls. These don’t seem to have much to do with when you go to bed or when you get up, but they are consistent in the research.
- Night owls score higher on intelligence tests. Conventional wisdom says that the early birds are the smart ones, but a 420-person study proved them wrong. Night owls did better on tests that measured everything from mathematical acuity to reading comprehension and processing speed.
- Night owls have more vices. A study of 537 people showed that night owls take in more nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol than do their early bird counterparts. A big part of this is that night owls are more likely to participate in nightlife, like going to bars, clubs, or parties, where these things are present. Caffeine intake may be tied to the fact that night owls often don’t get enough rest, given their chronotype and the way society is structured.
- Early birds are perfectionists. A study in Spain showed that early birds are more likely to persistently pursue a goal without getting frustrated or feeling like it is difficult. Night owls, on the other hand, often struggle with impulsiveness and extravagance. In general, early birds like stability and night owls prefer excitement.
- Both early birds and night owls are more creative in their off hours. Night owls tend to experience their most creative time of day in the morning, while early birds are more creative at night. Scientists think that this happens because people have less inhibitory control when they are not at their peak, so they are willing to consider and implement more creative solutions. So if you have a difficult problem, think about it when you’re sleepy!
Chronotypes and Sleep Disorders
For most people, their chronotype doesn’t interfere with their lives and, therefore, is not at all in the category of a sleep disorder. For a few people, though, their chronotype becomes disruptive. It’s either so overwhelming that they cannot deviate from it, even if they want to, or it pushes them to extremes that make normal life very difficult.
Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome is a diagnosis given to extreme night owls. They get tired much, much later than other people and also want to wake much, much later. People with this disorder often fall asleep after 2 AM every, single night, no matter what they try to do to change that. These are the people who feel hopeless about ever falling asleep like a normal person or getting enough rest.
People with Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome have the opposite problem. They want to go to bed very early, like 7 PM, and then they find themselves wide awake in the middle of the night, sometimes as early as 2 AM. This person’s body is ahead, rather than behind, that of the general population. While this sleep schedule works for some people, many find that it interferes with their work and social life.
Can You Change Your Chronotype?
You probably can’t change your chronotype completely. Because your chronotype seems largely dependent on genetics, it is predetermined for you. However, you can train yourself to go to bed and wake up at more suitable times of day.
It’s usually night owls who have to figure out how to do this. Most common schedules work well for early birds. They have time to get up, take care of themselves, and get to work on time. While they may not be the life of the party at night, they go to bed when they’re tired and get the rest they need.
Night owls don’t fit most common schedules well. They can’t go to sleep when they want to and get up when they want to and still make it to work on time or do the things they need to do.
While they can’t change their night owlishness, these folks can train themselves to go to bed earlier. It helps to set a goal, then move toward it in 15-minute increments. If you usually got to bed at 2 AM and you’d like to go to bed by 11, start slowly. Get yourself in bed by 1:45 for a few nights, then move it back to 1:30, and so on. It will take some time and some dedication, but you should be able to sleep earlier so you can get the rest you need.
You can also use melatonin to make your body sleepy earlier than usual, and use a broad spectrum light to help yourself wake up – and feel awake – in the morning.
Make Your Chronotype Work for You
Whether you are a night owl or an early bird, it’s best to embrace your chronotype as much as possible, rather than resisting it or feeling frustrated with yourself. Since it’s largely out of your control, there’s not a lot of point in resisting it unless you must do so to function well at work, etc.
If you’re an early bird, try to get things done in the morning, especially if you’re up before everyone else. This is the perfect time to sit quietly with a cup of coffee, journal, exercise, or finish up anything that needs to be done before you go to the office. Getting it done early means you won’t feel pressure to stay up late.
If you’re a night owl, accept the fact that your mornings will probably be rushed. Do your best to get yourself to bed in time to get plenty of sleep, but otherwise, don’t put pressure on yourself to go to bed earlier. Instead, get your stuff done at night. This can be a great time to work, work out, or get in your alone time.
No matter which type you are, you need to take care of yourself. As long as you are getting enough sleep, though, there’s no reason to pressure yourself to change. Instead, accept yourself as you are and do what is best for yourself in light of that.