Read any interview with an Olympic athlete, prominent figure, or high-flying businessman and they’ll probably reference getting up at the crack of dawn, whether to train, meditate, or start sending emails.
The idea that “God helps the early bird” is so deeply rooted in society that getting up at 5 in the morning has become a traffic light of good health and great success; Even those of us who prefer to sleep in bed are lucky to be able to do so. Set an alarm well after 7 a.m., thanks to the typical workday schedule.
But in fact, experts say that only 5 to 10 percent of people are true “larks” (they go to bed early and get up early), and most (myself included) prefer to go to bed and get up later.
The bad news is that us night owls (who stay up late and get up late) could be at a serious disadvantage when it comes to long-term health.
A study published last week in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggested that late risers might be 19 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than early risers.
LIBBY GALVIN (PICTURED): The bad news is that us night owls (who stay up late and get up late) could be at a serious disadvantage when it comes to long-term health.
The research, conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts, examined the health outcomes of nearly 64,000 middle-aged nurses over an eight-year period and also found that those who described themselves as night owls were 54 percent more likely to have unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as smoking, little sleep, and low levels of physical activity.
The good news is that it may be possible to “retrain” yourself to have a healthier type of sleep.
Each of us has a “chronotype,” also known as circadian preference, which refers to our preferred sleep-wake schedule.
This is primarily genetically determined, but can be dynamic, as it is also influenced by factors such as our hormones (more on this later). Our chronotype lies on a spectrum between being a lark and an owl. The intermediate types are known as pigeons.
As Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience and director of the Institute of Circadian and Sleep Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, explains: “Our internal clocks, located within our suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a deep area of the brain, are set to a cycle of around 24 hours.
«However, they only last about 24 hours: depending on each individual, the ticking is a little faster or a little slower. These differences are due to changes in one or more of our clock genes.’
This wide distribution of sleep and wake times is specific to humans, he claims, and is thought to be adaptive: “In early human societies, it would probably have been very useful for tribes to have a certain number of their population keeping watch At different times”. of the day.’
Today, however, being a night owl can be a burden. But it is possible to change your chronotype to better fit modern life, within reason.
Experts say it could take only a few days if a strict regimen is followed. Our sleep-wake times have about two hours of “flexibility” built in, so if you’re a night owl, you go to bed at midnight and wake up around 8 a.m., you could actually become a lark happily going to bed at 10 p.m. and getting up at 6 am.
Professor Foster says: “With a good routine and a commitment to early light exposure, this degree of chronotype change is realistic.”
But he adds: “Sleeping is as fundamental (to our existence) as being awake.” I can see that for many people today, having fun tendencies would be much more convenient, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of sleep duration.’
I certainly think I’d be better off as a lark. I was born a late bloomer and have always had a troubled relationship with sleep, having spent years unable to balance my inability to fall asleep on time with the need to get up early for school and, later, work.
Now, added to the mix, I have a six-month-old who likes to start his day between 4am and 6am, and I would love to greet the morning with as much enthusiasm as he does.
Each of us has a ‘chronotype’, also known as circadian preference, which refers to our preferred sleep and wake times (file photo)
But before trying to change your chronotype, it’s important to understand the factors that shape it.
“The first is genes,” says Professor Foster. “There are subtle changes in the clock genes, Per and Cry1, that can speed up or slow down our internal master clock, the SCN.”
“Second, our chronotypes change over time, from childhood to old age,” he adds.
‘From the age of approximately ten, there is a tendency to want to go to bed later and later.
“Then, starting in your 20s, there’s a slow shift back to being more of a morning type, and by the time you’re in your 50s or 60s, you get up and go to bed around the same time you used to.” a preteen.’
This equates to a difference in ideal sleep and wake times of an average of two hours, meaning that if you enjoyed sleeping at midnight in your 20s, at 60, around 10pm, you’ll feel more natural.
This change is associated with the alteration of hormone levels associated with puberty: “Sex steroids (estrogen in women and testosterone in men) interact with the brain’s master clock,” says Professor Foster.
Since I’m breastfeeding, my estrogen levels are probably pretty low, so maybe that helps make mornings easier right now, I wonder. Professor Foster hypothesizes that it may well work.
Great news: this should make my journey from owl to lark easier.
The third, and most important, factor to consider when altering your chronotype is light exposure.
Light helps keep our 24-hour biological clock running on time, entering through the eyes and sending signals, through the retina, to the SCN.
“The most important thing to remember is that morning light moves the clock forward,” says Professor Foster.
‘So if you want to train yourself to be a lark, go outdoors in the morning light as soon as you can for at least 30 minutes; You’ll find it easier to go to bed earlier and get up early the next day. Exposure to light at dusk has the opposite effect.’
And simply sitting next to a window does not make you “more larkish”, nor does turning on the lights.
“We have data that shows that just 30 minutes of light at 10,000 lux can have an effect on our brain, but average home lighting conditions are about 100 lux, office lighting is maybe 400 lux, so “We actually live in dark, dim places. Caves,” says Professor Foster.
He suggests using a lux meter (around £15 online; free in an app on your phone) to assess the lighting conditions in your home. To really make you feel bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, add some movement: “exposure to morning light and exercise can act synergistically,” says Professor Foster.
And he adds: “There is evidence that the timing of physical exercise will also change the clock, in addition to the fact that morning exercise is good for the metabolism.”
So would making these kinds of changes help me? I decided to try it for a month. Turns out I had a secret weapon: my cocker spaniel Vincent.
Simply sitting next to a window does not help you be more “larky” and sleep earlier, nor does it help you turn on the lights (file photo)
“There is some data to suggest that people who own dogs have better sleep-wake patterns,” says Professor Foster.
One theory is that this is because you have to get up and take them out in the morning. “And this produces a ‘photon shower’ (shower of light particles),” he explains.
The first morning I followed Professor Foster’s advice and opened the curtains at dawn: but the light on that cloudy day measured only 410 lux. Even outdoors, on my patio, there were only 3,426 lux.
This suggests that in the UK even a half-hour outdoor photon shower may not be enough, especially as we head into winter.
“The answer may be to use a light box,” says Professor Foster, “and have breakfast in front of it.” (Popular models will cost you between £60 and £90.)
In addition to opening the curtains and going out on the patio first thing in the morning, I try to take the dog for an early walk, well before noon, and go to bed at a respectable 10 p.m. (well, sometimes closer to 10:59 , instead of my standard midnight). .
After a month, although my chronotype has not completely transformed (partly because a new baby makes my nights so unpredictable), on the days when I can follow my “lark” routine, I feel much better and find the next morning, and the next, and the next, considerably easier.
The key is consistency, says Professor Foster. But I know the increasingly dark mornings will make it difficult to maintain momentum. It’s time to look inside that light box. . .