Whether you struggle to stay up or have difficulty waking up in the morning, it could be due to your chronotype, or your body’s natural preference to fall asleep at a certain time every day. The good news is that pinpointing your chronotype can help make your nights more restful and your days more enjoyable. Here, three top sleep psychologists explain exactly what chronotypes are and how you can make the most of yours.
What is chronotype?
“Chronotype refers to something called your circadian typology, which is individual differences in your levels of activity or alertness across the day,” says Natalie Dautovich, Ph.D., the environmental fellow for the National Sleep Foundation, and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Your chronotype is guided by your internal clock that drives you toward sleepiness or wakefulness over a 24-hour period. Some people have a chronotype that naturally makes them more alert in the morning while others have a chronotype that makes them more alert at night.
chronotype v. Circadian rhythm:
“Circadian is a Latin word and it means ‘around a day’ so on the planet Earth, our day is 24 hours so that’s how our body clock is pretty much set,” says Alicia Roth, Ph.D., clinical health psychologist who specializes in behavioral sleep medicine at Cleveland Clinic. In fact, she points out, the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to scientists who discovered there’s a gene that encodes a protein which builds up in cells at night and then breaks down during the day. Essentially, every cell in our body follows our circadian rhythm or internal clock. “But everything’s on a little bit of a different clock so we have clocks for sleep and wake and we have clocks for hormones and digestion and bowel movements and organ function,” says Roth. “When we’re talking about chronotypes, we’re mostly talking about our sleep-wake clocks.”
What determines your chronotype?
“All of the evidence that we have right now suggests that it is a genetic, heritable trait,” says Erin Flynn-Evans, Ph.D., MPH, sleep and circadian researcher and consultant to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s Public Safety Committee . “So typically in families you’ll see clusters of morning-type or evening-type people.” Basically, your genes help decide how your body responds to light exposure.
It all comes down to melatonin, a hormone released by a small gland in our brain. “For most people on the planet Earth, when the sun comes out we receive natural light in our eyes,” explains Roth. “It goes through a pathway from our retinas in our eyes to our brain where it gets converted into a chemical signal and melatonin is suppressed. Then when the sun goes down, our melatonin system is able to turn back on and several hours later we’re ready for sleep.” That’s how it works for most people, but if you are an extreme night owl, your melatonin system turns on well past sunset and if you’re an extreme early bird, your melatonin is released much earlier.
“There have been studies of people who have been camping and when you’re camping, you’re getting light exposure pretty close to sunrise and seeing light pretty much right up until sunset and sleeping during the night,” says Flynn-Evans. “In those studies, the differences between morning types and evening types shrank considerably because they’re just exposed to so much bright daytime light.”
Carol YepesGetty Images
Why is your chronotype important?
Knowing your chronotype is more than a knowing piece of trivia about yourself. What you do with that knowledge can have a great impact on your life. “Even if you don’t fall into one of the extreme categories, you probably have a tendency toward the morning or the evening type,” says Roth. “So understanding what your chronotype is will be beneficial not just to your sleep, but how you structure or plan your day. Your chronotype is not just about when you sleep best — it’s also when your best times for activity are.”
When do you do your best thinking? When do you prefer to exercise? When is socializing easiest for you? When do you feel most energized or sluggish? “Our society primarily operates on a morning-type schedule so places of business open at around 9 am and close in the early evening,” says Dautovich. “So in terms of general functioning, sometimes it’s easier if you are a morning type, but where there is flexibility, you can make decisions.” Our society’s tilt toward early birds may be one reason why research shows that night owls are more likely to suffer from depression.
Along those same lines, there’s been an increasing amount of attention given to the fact that delaying school start times could benefit teens — a cohort of the population that tends to thrive on a later schedule. It’s not that teens just want to sleep, Dautovich says, they’re not biologically awake early in the morning and have difficulty focusing then. “We know that there’s a developmental shift that happens,” she explains. “We usually hit our peak evening-ness or lateness in our early 20s and then we start to shift back and become more morning types, although there are sex differences with males typically shifting a little later.”
“When you have no choice and you have to align yourself to a certain social structure, then my best advice is that you should really try to maximize light exposure at times when it will help you align to what your work or school schedule is on all days, including weekends,” suggests Flynn-Evans. “Similarly, you want to minimize light at a time when it could be problematic.” That means if you struggle to wake up early, expose yourself to light first thing in the morning and then keep lights dim in the evening and turn off screens a couple of hours before bed. “But if you allow your internal clock to take over on the weekends, it’s just going to make the problem worse,” Flynn-Evans adds. “The more you can maintain stability, the better you feel, the better your long-term and short-term health outcomes will be and the easier it will be to maintain that schedule going forward.”
Beyond your daily activities, the emergence of smart technology and movement tracking has also allowed researchers to begin to dive into chronotype-based therapeutics, according to Dautovich. When should medication for the treatment of cancer be administered? When should vaccines be given? When are we most likely to experience a heart attack? “We know that these individual rhythms are the key to increasing the effectiveness of different treatment approaches,” says Dautovich.
What are the different chronotypes?
In some spaces, you’ll read or hear about four chronotypes — the lion, bear, wolf and dolphin. However, most research divides people into just three chronotypes — the morning lark, the night owl and the hummingbird.
- Morning lark: Early birds naturally rise at 5 or 6 am without an alarm and are ready for bed around 9 or 10 pm, says Flynn-Evans. At the extreme end, someone who wakes up at 3 or 4 am and finds it very difficult to stay up past 7 pm may be diagnosed with advanced sleep phase disorder, she adds.
- Hummingbird: The majority of the population fits in here. There are variations in morning-ness and evening-ness among this group of people, but hummingbirds take a little time to warm up and hover midday before slowing down toward the end of the day, according to Dautovich.
- night owl A typical night owl is someone who is still activated at midnight and really struggles to wake up at 7 or 8 am, says Flynn-Evans. At the extreme end here, someone who naturally stays awake until 4 or 5 am and then sleeps until 12 or 1 pm may be diagnosed with delayed sleep phase disorder, she explains.
What is my chronotype?
The best way to find out is to see a sleep specialist. They may ask you to complete a questionnaire, keep a sleep log and/or wear a device to track your sleep over several weeks without an imposed bedtime or wake time. “This is hard for people to do because we have a lot of impositions on our schedule like work and kids in school, but if it’s possible, go at least two weeks of not having a set bedtime or a set wake time and just go by what your body’s telling you to do,” advises Roth. “Go to sleep when you feel really sleepy, wake up when you’re ready to wake up and keep a log of that.” Pay attention to how you feel throughout the day: When do you have the most energy? When would you like to do your hardest work?
If you want to get an idea of your chronotype without seeing a sleep physician or psychologist, you can take the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (MEQ). Dautovich says this particular questionnaire is a validated one used by professionals. “It asks a bunch of questions about your preferences for the timing of different activities can help you get a sense of where you fall in terms of your body’s preferred timing,” she explains.
Can you change your chronotype?
“Society is set up for early to bed, early to rise,” says Roth. As a result, most of the people who want or need to change their sleep schedule are people with a delayed sleep phase. “There’s nothing inherently bad about being a delayed sleeper,” Roth says. It’s just “a mismatch between what people’s bodies like to do and what society needs from them,” she elaborates. It is difficult, but Roth says it is possible to adjust your sleep pattern through a combination of cognitive behavioral and biological approaches.
“There are behaviors like sleep habits — what they’re doing to wind down, how they’re structuring their day, what they do when they can’t sleep,” says Roth. (These tips on how to sleep better might help, too.) The biological component may involve both melatonin supplements and light exposure. “The supplement melatonin doesn’t really work for people with straight-up insomnia, but it works really well for people with a delayed phase,” says Roth. “We give them melatonin earlier in the evening to tell the sleep system to turn on and then we have them do light therapy in the morning to turn the system off — light therapy with a box or even just going outside.”
It’s important to note that it takes time and consistency to help your body adjust. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a sleep specialist if you’re struggling and most importantly, give yourself some grace during this process. There’s often a stigma attached to having an evening chronotype — that you’re lazy or unmotivated or don’t care — but that’s not true at all. It’s a reflection of the way our society is set up and has nothing to do with you.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io