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Of Early Risers and Night Owls: Delving into Our Sleep Genes

Have you ever wondered why some people are up and ready to conquer the world at the crack of dawn, while others seem to only awaken as twilight deepens? Does the phrase, “I am not a morning person” sound familiar?

The narrative of the "early riser" (also known as “morning lark”) versus the "night owl" isn't just folklore, but a deeply rooted biological phenomenon called a "chronotype." Think of it as an evolutionary guard rotation system to fend off sabertooth cats during the caveman era.

At the helm of our sleep pattern is a biological pacemaker known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN. This tiny bundle of about 20,000 neurons is strategically nestled at the juncture of our optical nerve and brain, making it the ideal candidate for a sleep master. Like an attentive conductor, it responds to external cues such as daylight to dictate if it's time to burrow under the sheets or lace up for a morning jog. The SCN also manages the release of sleep-related hormones, creating an intricate symphony that ushers us into the realm of dreams.

The tune that your SCN plays changes as you grow. Remember your infancy, when the rooster's crow prompted a loud wake-up call for the entire house? Or your rebellious teenage years when sleep was postponed for late-night movies? As an adult, your SCN subtly influences when you naturally feel inclined to sleep and wake, shaping your routine in ways you might not even notice.

Interestingly, nearly one-third of us have a neutral chronotype, not leaning particularly toward morning or night. About 40 percent are biologically inclined to be early risers, reaching their alertness peak in the early part of the day and succumbing to sleepiness as evening falls. The remaining 30 percent are the night owls, hardwired to stay up and rise late. This doesn't bode well for the owls in a world that largely operates on an early riser schedule. A night owl who falls asleep at 3 a.m. might manage only a handful of sleep hours before their alarm clock blares for work, leading to chronic sleep deprivation.

This discord between one's internal sleep rhythm and societal demands is termed "social jet lag". This sleep misalignment explains why night owls forced to follow early bird schedules often grapple with health issues, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The genetic diversity in sleep patterns, once a survival mechanism, has now evolved into a health challenge in our modern society.

So, who are these early risers and night owls exactly? Let's delve into the distinctive traits that make each chronotype unique!

Early Risers...

  • Naturally sync with corporate life. Thanks to their body clock chiming with conventional working hours, they are better suited to thrive in typical office settings. While this doesn't necessarily make them more successful, it does give them a leg up in the world of nine-to-five as they are less likely to hit snooze.
  • The early bird is possibly the cheeriest of us all. A 2019 study involving 250,000 Americans found that people genetically inclined to wake early have a lower risk of mental health issues, such as schizophrenia and depression.
  • Tend to be the go-getters. A Finnish study involving 6,000 middle-aged participants discovered that early birds experience an extra 20-30 minutes of significant physical activity throughout the day.
  • Are often the most punctual. Early risers, especially students, tend to arrive earlier for morning commitments, demonstrating a commendable punctuality trait.

Night Owls...

  • Tend to have more vivid dreams. A Canadian study involving 4,000 participants revealed that self-identified night owls were more prone to intense and occasionally terrifying nightmares.
  • The evening type has their own society! The B Society of Denmark aims to reduce social jet lag by advocating for flexible start times at workplaces and schools, creating a society that honors everyone's unique biological rhythms.
  • Might be more neurotic. A Taiwanese survey of nearly 3,000 college students found night owls were more prone to feelings of depression, anxiety, and obsessive tendencies. They also scored higher in the categories for "novelty-seeking" and "harm-avoidance."
  • Are known to be more creative. In a study involving over 20,000 UK teenagers, those who reported later sleep schedules demonstrated higher intelligence and creativity than early-to-bed peers.
  • Might indulge in more vices...and romance. According to a British study involving 400,000 participants, definitive evening types were found to drink and use drugs more often. In a smaller study from Durham University in England, male night owls were found to have nearly four times as many sexual partners as early risers.
In the grand scheme of things, there's no right or wrong when it comes to being an early riser or a night owl. Both chronotypes have their advantages and drawbacks, and our world wouldn't be the same without the balance they bring. The real challenge lies in mitigating social jet lag and ensuring we respect our natural sleep rhythms, whether they align with the crowing rooster or the hooting owl. That way, we can all feel well-rested and perform our best, no matter what time the clock reads.

Surviving in a 9-5 World as a Night Owl

For night owls, navigating the 9-5 world can be a daunting task. The early morning rush, the constant struggle to stay alert, and the perpetual feeling of exhaustion can take a toll on both mental and physical well-being. But fear not, fellow night owls! There are strategies you can employ to make the most of your night owl nature while still meeting the demands of a traditional work schedule.

    Adjust Your Sleep Schedule Gradually

    Instead of trying to force yourself into an early bird routine overnight, make incremental changes to your sleep schedule. Gradually shift your bedtime and waking time earlier by 15-30 minutes each week until you find a balance that works for you.

    Optimize Your Sleeping Environment

    Create a sleep sanctuary that promotes relaxation and quality sleep. Invest in light-blocking curtains to keep the early morning sun at bay, use earplugs or a white noise machine to minimize daytime noise disruptions, and ensure your mattress and pillows provide optimal comfort and support.

    Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

    Establish a consistent bedtime routine to signal to your body that it's time to wind down. Avoid caffeine and stimulating activities in the evening, limit exposure to blue light from electronic devices, and create a relaxing pre-sleep ritual, such as reading a book or taking a warm bath.

    Schedule Breaks and Naps

    Recognize the importance of rest and rejuvenation during the day. Take short breaks to stretch and move around, and if possible, incorporate power naps into your routine. A quick 20-minute nap can help boost alertness and productivity.

    Communicate Your Needs
    Openly communicate with your employer or supervisor about your natural sleep patterns and explore potential flexibility in your work schedule. Many companies are becoming more aware of the diverse sleep needs of their employees and may be open to accommodating your preferences within reason.

            By embracing your night owl tendencies and implementing these strategies, you can find a balance that allows you to thrive in a 9-5 world without sacrificing your sleep health and overall well-being. Remember, everyone's internal clock is unique, and respecting your own sleep patterns is essential for optimal performance and happiness.


            As we continue our journey of understanding and accommodating different sleep patterns, we must never forget the most important aspect of sleep itself: comfort. It's not just about when you sleep, but how well you sleep. So, whether you're a night owl or an early riser, ensure that you have a comfortable environment that welcomes you to rest. Because good sleep is something we all deserve, regardless of when we choose to embrace it.
            June 15, 2023 by Janelle Viramontes
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