5 Simple Steps To Becoming A Morning Person
A night owl’s guide to being a morning lark — and the sleep science behind it
The world isn’t made for night owls like me. Or at least my world — which involves a nine-to-five job, young children and an 8am school run — isn’t.
I’ve always loathed waking early and loved staying up late. Lately, I’m trading more hours of sleep for a bit more Netflix or a few extra pages of my book, before crawling into bed at 1am most nights.
But it seems I should change my ways. Researchers from the University of Oulu in Finland recently found that night owls (those who are more prone to staying up late and sleeping in) tend to take retirement earlier than larks (those prone to waking early and ticking off their to-do lists before I’ve even had my first coffee) due to poorer health.
Owls also performed less well at work, with the researchers suggesting workplaces should consider an employee’s sleep type “when planning work schedules”.
This isn’t the first time researchers have linked poor health to being a night owl: according to several studies, we’re more likely to suffer depression, mental health problems, obesity and even cancer than our early rising friends.
Analysis funded by Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council found larks were 48 per cent less likely than owls to develop cancer, after examining how sleep habits affect our chances of developing it.
So surely it’s healthier to be a lark? “No, absolutely not,” says Guy Meadows, clinical director of the Sleep School. “My biggest bugbear is the assumption that larks are somehow healthier, harder working and better than night owls. That’s simply not true. On a biological level, neither one is healthier than the other.”
Meadows explains that there is a good evolutionary reason for having a proportion of society that likes staying up late and a proportion that loves an early night, which is that it favoured survival.
“In caveman times, if a family or tribe slept at the same time, it would be dangerous. Our wake/sleep times are influenced by genetic factors, known as our chronotype, which go back a very long way.”
Problems arose, says Meadows, because society began to favour larks, and the world’s timetable shifted back as a result.
“It was Benjamin Franklin who coined the phrase: ‘Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.’ We also have the proverb: ‘The early bird catches the worm.’ And the Italians have a saying that roughly translates as: ‘The morning has gold in its mouth.’
“Night owls have been persecuted for years by a society that places value on early waking. I see so many people in my clinic whose chronotype leaves them paddling upstream every morning because the world is designed with larks in mind.”
And it’s here that the health problems come about. If, like me, you’re an owl living in a lark world, you’re more likely to experience sleep deprivation and what Meadows calls “social jetlag”.
This also happens to teenagers, who morph into owls during adolescence. “Teenagers aren’t lazy,” says Meadows, “studies now show that’s just their sleep type.”
The result is that the owl population is more likely to turn to unhealthy behaviours to prop themselves up, like heavier than average caffeine use, eating sugary foods and drinking alcohol.
They also suffer hormonal shifts that make them overeat, which can lead to obesity and resulting conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
Says Meadows: “Their levels of the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin become unbalanced, so they have less willpower and increased hunger.” And it’s this behaviour that is behind the unhealthy owl headlines.
Lockdown has seen a rise in owlish behaviour, adds Meadows, with night owls benefiting from homeworking and a lack of early morning commutes.
“Owls have been saying to me: ‘Lockdown has been a good thing because I can sleep in and work later, because I haven’t got to worry about commuting home at 8pm.’ Despite soaring lockdown insomnia, night owls are actually better off because they’ve been allowed to sleep and work to their natural timings, which is something companies should think about.”
However, the world will one day return to normal — 8am school runs included — and not all workplaces will be willing or able to take into account a person’s sleep type when setting hours. “Just yesterday, somebody said to me: ‘Is there anything you can do if you’re an owl trapped in a lark’s world?’ ” says Meadows. “Luckily, there’s plenty.”
He points to a 2019 study that found owls can “sleep train” themselves to be more like larks, with the researchers finding that while our body clocks are genetically predisposed, they’re also malleable.
Scientists from the universities of Birmingham and Surrey and Monash University in Australia found owls can nudge their body clocks forward by as much as three hours in three weeks with simple adjustments, like avoiding weekend lie-ins and reducing caffeine.
So, for me, there is hope of a new dawn yet.
FIVE SIMPLE TWEAKS TO MAKE YOU A MORNING PERSON
Treat light like it’s coffee
“The first thing I do when I wake up is open my curtains,” says Meadows. “Biologically speaking, the light that floods into your bedroom affects your body like a cup of coffee. Look at your phone first thing, too, because the light it emits will tell your brain the day has begun.”
Spend more time outside every day
Natural light is crucial for setting our circadian rhythm, which is your body’s internal body clock. When we’re exposed to daylight that rhythm becomes more closely synchronised with sunrise and sunset, so we become more prone to falling asleep earlier.
Learn to be patient
As the Australian study showed, it takes a little time for your body to adjust. “There may also be some delay in getting a few early nights and feeling better for it,” says Meadows, who says simply going to bed early one night and expecting miracles won’t work. “If you want to go to bed earlier, you also need to think about making your evenings less exciting, with fewer distractions like Netflix or phones. It’s not just your phone’s blue light that keeps you hooked, it’s all the content on it too that draws you in. Read a book instead.”
Have an early breakfast
“Your gut contains ‘clock cells’,” says Meadows, “which feed back up to your master body clock. When you eat breakfast, it tells your body clock that your day has begun, which helps wake you up.” If you are an owl prone to evening snacking, try to eat no later than 8pm, so you feel hungrier in the mornings.
Get moving soon after you wake
Whether it’s an early dog walk or a quick stretch in your bedroom, Meadows says movement first thing can help owls start to shift into lark mode. “Like our guts, our muscles also have ‘clock cells’, and early morning movement helps wake up our bodies. If you exercise outside, even better.”
– The Daily Telegraph