Diet & Nutrition

Being a night owl in a lark's world

Science says you're not lazy or disorganised because being a night person is actually genetic.

By Jessica Vander Leahy

If you’re not a morning person it will be an affliction that will prove problematic every day of your life. For night owls, the morning will always come too early, the days will drag, the nights will fly by and all the while deals will be made with the devil for five more minutes in bed - it's always been this way.

You see, for billions of years the sun has risen and set and with it animals wake and rest – humans of course being one of them.

Back in our caveman days, there was no such thing as an iPhone to wake you up so how did we know when we should be up and at ‘em and when we were ready to take a Stone Age style snooze? Well because … nature.

Right from birth, our body clocks are already wound and genetics have established a "chronotype," – a sleep phenotype that influences a person’s natural tendencies toward sleeping and waking.

Chronotypes fall into three categories—early, late or intermediates, also known as the fence sitters that can sleep both ways. While there is conjecture about what percentage of the population falls into each chronotype, according to the Institute of Medical Psychology’s (IMP) Centre for Chronobiology’s ongoing study of more than 25,000 people, around 10 per cent of population qualifies as morning people or larks, a further 20 per cent are night owls while the rest of us fall somewhere in between.

Basically, the way it works is larks get their chemical boost of the stress hormone cortisol in the waking hours of the morning which helps to jolt them out of bed. After an active morning they experience a lull by the middle of the afternoon when their bodies warm up to their highest body temperature.

For owls, it is opposite. Their chemical peak comes much later and they come into their own when everyone else is ready to retire to bed. As such, for an owl, waking up at the crack of dawn is literally a fight against nature.

Bottom line is, everybody has a chronotype and depending on what it is can mean a lot for your health.

Night owls hungrier, fatter and more promiscuous

Scroll through Facebook posts in the morning and you will discover enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that late risers have to experience the morning like the walking dead but the bad news for them doesn’t end there. A recent study from RWTH Aachen University in Germany, published in Science Direct, showed night owls were more prone to “sleep disturbances, vulnerability to depression and higher consumption of nicotine and alcohol” compared to the other two chronotypes.

The 2014 research was the first investigation to capture physical evidence of structural brain differences that distinguish early risers from late sleepers by assessing the white matter of 16 early birds, 23 night owls and 20 middle-of-the-roaders in a diffusion MRI machine.

One of the study’s authors told New Scientist that the higher levels of damage in the white matter of night owls – particularly in the areas associated with sadness and depression – could be “caused by the fact that late chronotypes suffer from this permanent jetlag”.

This concept of “social jetlag” comes up quite a bit when reserching sleeping patterns and Professor Till Roenneberg, who is the chronobiologist who heads up the centre at the IMP, told The Huffington Post this about the condition:

“A biological clock is ticking in every person, producing an individual daily timing … For some people, internal midday may coincide with external midday. Others can reach their internal midday several hours before or after external midday. Social jet lag measures this difference between our external social timing and that of our internal clock.”

Basically for night owls, living in a world that is set against their internal time zone is tough and international studies have revealed late risers tend to be hungrier and fatter than morning people, suffer from poorer memory, more pain, may be more impulsive and promiscuous.

But Dr Sarah Blunden, a psychologist and director the Australian Centre for Education in Sleep, says we shouldn’t be so quick to judge our night time population because they want to be awake when most want to sleep.

“It could be that we are looking at night owls from the wrong direction,” Dr Blunden tells The Weekly. “We see people who are night owls and we think they are narcissistic and selfish but that’s because night time is when there are less people around – a time when you can go into your room and be withdrawn or you can go out and be part of the party scene so there could be a bidirectional relationship.”

This notion that night owls show signs of the "dark triad" - Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy, could be related but Dr Blunden maintains “whether they are causal is another matter”.

Morning types tend to be happier

For larks the news is mostly good.

Two psychologists from the University of Toronto assessed a sample of 435 young adults (17 to 38) and 297 older adults (59 to 79) on their chronotypes, as well as their current moods, and discovered that compared to night types morning people were more positive across the board. And while mood isn't the same as general happiness, the findings may speak in part to the challenges owls face on a daily basis.

"Waking up early may indeed make one happy as a lark," the researchers conclude in the journal Emotion.

Studies have also suggested morning types procrastinate less, consume less nicotine, drink less alcohol and generally are healthier – but why wouldn't they be? The world revolves around them.

In one particular addiction study published by the American Psychological Association, researchers stressed “the need to consider chronotype as a contributory psychological factor in a multi-causal model of consumption of psychoactive substances”.

Going against type

While we do have to respect our body clock we have to sometimes work against it for the sake of our health.

Dr Blunden says night owls tend to snack late at night and this goes against what the rest of our bodies are primed to handle.

“Our current body rhythms are actually primed to be alert in the day and eat in the day and not be alert at night and not eat at night so when we eat out of phase that is not good,” Dr Blunden explains.

“[Eating out of phase] has been shown in recent endeavors to probably increase the risk of obesity if you continually do it because your body is not primed to do that. Your hormone balance is different and your glucose and insulin change overnight so if you are going to be eating things high in fat and high in carbohydrates – which are craved by late shift people – it’s a vicious cycle.”

Image above: Figure A indicates where a chronotype lies in comparison to the other people the Institute of Medical Psychology’s (IMP) Centre for Chronobiology’s database.

What’s the point of having chronotypes?

So why do we even have chronotypes? And if night types have to live with so many extra risks and afflictions compared to their lark and intermediate counterparts why didn’t nature discard the GG nucleotide base that makes a night owl?

Well let’s think back to the aforementioned Stone Age – or just even before the 9-5 working week was established – when night owls were a necessary minority for humanity’s social function.

The night owl was the watchman who was naturally was alert in the evening, the raider who could remain sharp well into the morning or the shaman who was able to think clearly and treat the sick in the dark of night. These biological sleeping cues would have enabled our ancestors to establish societies that were operated and protected at night and without the modern day reliance on coffee or Red Bull. These natural creatures of the night would not be worse for wear while on the late shift largely because they wouldn’t have to rise at the same time as everyone else to honour a narrow notion of what constitutes a "proper day".

Of course larks had their ancestral function too. They were up at dawn hunting weary animals and finding fresh watering holes – and clearly conceiving ideas about establishing the 9-5 working week at an hour when the night owls would have been fast asleep or too tired to cast a conscious objection.

And nowadays Dr Blunden says our genetic hardwiring for sleep affects us more than we might think – impacting on big life choices.

“Our school life and our work life bases itself on people who are more aligned with being intermediate or morning people,” Dr Blunden tells The Weekly. “But the 24-hour society now is probably more evening person friendly because those people are more likely to get jobs – they are more likely to work in hospitality and entertainment and they probably find themselves in those jobs without realising that those roles actually just suit their sleeping preference more.”

The fact is that since the 18th century’s industrial revolution larks and middle-of the-roaders have been given the advantage but in the age of the internet many are recognising the need for a liberated lifestyle – one that will improve the human experience, productivity, and innovation.

Tips for shifting your sleep phase

You can’t change your chronotype but you can trick it by doing the following:

  • Increasing our exposure to light in the morning and decreasing our exposure to light in the evening.

  • Turning off the blue light on our electronic devices which is very effective in adjusting your circadian clock.

  • Less artificial light and more natural sunlight at work and home.

  • Keep up your good sleep schedule – missing even one day of good sleep will rewind everything back to its original genetic predisposition.

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