Whether you are a morning person or a night person comes down to evolution. Photo: iStockThink back to this morning’s alarm. Were you up at the crack of dawn before it even sounded, awake and alert? Or did the repetitive blaring eventually drag you from your slumber, dazed, confused, slapping at the snooze button with one hand while reaching for a compulsory cup of coffee with the other?
The preference for morning or evening is known as our sleep chronotype, which is when we reach peak cognitive and metabolic functioning. Science has shown a whole host of differences between early birds (morning sleep chronotypes) and night owls (evening sleep chronotypes) – and the evidence weighs against those with an aversion to sunrise.
Studies have revealed late risers tend to be hungrier and fatter than morning people. They suffer from poorer memory and more pain. They may be extroverted, sensation-seeking and have sex more often, but evening sleep chronotypes are also at higher risk of cancer and depression.
Yet there is little we can do, as the division is down to evolution. So, just as we’re born tall or short, we are genetically predisposed to mornings or evenings. “Circadian rhythms and sleeping patterns are a matter of biology, not preference,” explains psychology professor Leon Lack, from Flinders University.
In another blow for night owls, the latest study has found evening types more likely to exhibit personality traits linked to the so-called “Dark Triad” – Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. Dr Peter Jonason, an expert in social, personality and evolutionary psychology at the University of Western Sydney, explains: “My research suggests those who have a night-time chronotype have darker personalities and these are related to promiscuity, mate poaching, psychological dysfunction, for example depression, sensitivity to rewards, dishonesty, and likely a boom and bust work pattern”.
But some psychologists believe findings like these fail to take into account creatures of the night simply not getting enough sleep. “Night owls have delayed circadian rhythms,” Professor Lack says. “Their body clock is out of sync with society’s clock, which becomes a problem in a world heavily oriented towards morning people.”
We have to get up early, get to work on time, and then actually pay attention once we’re there, all of which is much easier to do if you’re programmed to wake with the sun. So that grumpiness and inertia you feel until you’ve had a coffee isn’t your fault.
But sleeping in or trying to “catch up” on missed sleep at the weekend only worsens the pattern. “By staying in bed, night owls remove the major external force for rewiring the body clock which is morning bright light. Sunlight helps increase alertness by suppressing melatonin, the hormone associated with sleepiness,” Professor Lack says.
If that makes the night owls among us want to hide under the covers, the good news is that it is possible to reset our clocks and change our mindset to get better quality sleep. Here are five ways to do so.
1. Switch off: Professor Lack advises minimising exposure to artificial light of an evening, “Bright light at night contributes to delaying the body clock, but the major factor is engaging mentally through interactive technology usage, like texting, speaking on the phone, surfing the web”.
2. Put a cap on the booze and caffeine: Studies show alcohol makes you tired and compromises the quality of your sleep, just like caffeine. “If drinking alcohol, stick with a glass or two, allowing your body time to metabolise what you’ve consumed,” Dr Jessica Paterson, from CQUniversity Australia, says.
3. Have sex: “Thinking about one’s troubles and daily hassles induces cortisol (a stress hormone), which will inhibit sleep. Find ways to reduce testosterone and cortisol and even induce dopamine and serotonin, like sex or masturbation,” Dr Jonason says.
4. Learn to love routine: Dr Paterson recommends exercise or a warm bath a few hours before bed. “A consistent pre-bed routine ‘primes’ the brain and body for sleep.”
5. If all else fails, consider a career change: “It is misguided to try to change yourself to fit your lifestyle and healthier to change your lifestyle to fit your body,” Dr Jonason says. “Better to get a job that fits your chronotype than try to rearrange your chronotype to fit your job. Going against one’s biology rarely works out well. Your body is wiser than you think you are”.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.