“The early bird gets the worm . . . Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” There are plenty of adages that extol the virtues of rising early, but is it actually better to be a morning person?
What’s Your Type?
You may consider yourself an early bird (also called a lark) or a night owl based on when you prefer to go to bed or wake up, or when you find yourself the most productive.
A review published in Chronobiology International reported that 40 percent of people are either extreme early birds or night owls, while the rest of the population falls somewhere in the middle.
“Extreme night owls might not go to bed until 3 or 4 a.m. while extreme larks are waking up at about that time,” said Mark Reploeg, MD, from Samaritan Sleep Center. “The body’s circadian rhythm is about a 24-hour cycle. It uses external cues like light, food and sleep to control the hormones that regulate sleep/wake cycles.”
According to Dr. Reploeg, age also plays a role. Children usually rise early, while adolescents rise later. By age 20, people usually reach their maximum “lateness” and slowly start waking and going to bed earlier. By age 60 people are often waking earlier than they did as children.
He notes that you can determine whether you are a morning or evening type by rating your “morningness” and “eveningness” on a scale of “definitely a morning person,” “more morning than evening person,” “more evening than morning person,” or “definitely an evening person.”
Health & Circadian Rhythm
If you are trying to maximize your health, there’s strong evidence for being an early bird.
A large study from the United Kingdom looked at the self-reported morningness and eveningness of more than 430,000 people. Researchers found those prone toward eveningness were more significantly associated with having a health disorder. Comparing definite evening type to definite morning type, the associations were strongest for psychological disorders, diabetes, neurological disorders, gastrointestinal/abdominal disorders and respiratory disorders. Definite evening types were also more likely to die from any cause.
“Various research has indicated that night owls are more prone to disease, depression, and alcohol and drug abuse,” said Dr. Reploeg. “They also eat more calories, fewer vegetables, more caffeine and sugary beverages, more fast food and get less exercise. It’s kind of a laundry list of ‘what not to do’ in terms of health.”
Dr. Reploeg noted that research simply shows a link to these behaviors; being a night owl has not been shown to cause unhealthy behaviors. However, you will likely need to be more mindful of making healthy choices if you are a night owl.
“There are often more health-oriented services available for morning people, like classes at the gym, healthy food options and wholesome entertainment,” said Dr. Reploeg. “The majority of those things are harder to find at 2 a.m.”
Should You Become a Morning Person?
Being a lark isn’t better than being a night owl, but if you find that the hours you’re keeping are getting in the way of work, school, healthy habits, social functions or other commitments, it might be helpful to shift your daily activity to operate more in the morning.
“Your preference for morning or evening is largely determined by genetics but it is possible to shift your sleep/wake rhythm to support better function during the day,” said Dr. Reploeg.
Dr. Reploeg outlined ways to make the transition:
1. Get light early.
Dr. Reploeg reported that light is the most important cue your body uses to regulate your circadian rhythm. Getting light early in the morning tells your body that it’s time to start the day and will help shift your internal clock. Finding light in the morning can be difficult during the winter months, so consider turning on a lamp when your alarm goes off or investing in a light therapy lamp to use during breakfast. You can also take a short five- or 10-minute walk in the morning once the sun is up. Even if the day is overcast your body will recognize the light.
2. Set your alarm 20 minutes earlier every day.
This will help you get to your desired wake time quickly and help you feel more tired in the evening so you go to bed earlier. Dr. Reploeg reported that a wake time between 6 and 7 a.m. works well for most people. Adjust your bedtime as well to allow for seven to nine hours of sleep a night.
3. Shift your meal times.
Eating is another cue your body uses to gauge sleep and wake times. Aim to eat your first meal of the day within two hours of waking up. Lunch should be four to five hours after breakfast and dinner should be four to five hours after lunch.
4. Schedule exercise.
Research published in the journal Sleep and Biological Rhythms found that people who exercised at a regularly scheduled time were able to adjust to time and sleep shifts more easily than those who didn’t exercise. Dr. Reploeg reported morning or early afternoon are the preferred times to exercise, especially if you can be in bright light.
5. Melatonin can help.
Taking a melatonin supplement 90 minutes before bed can help you adjust to an earlier bed time. Although high doses like 5mg or 10mg are readily available, Dr. Reploeg noted that smaller doses are the most effective way to promote sleep. He recommends 0.25mg, which is enough to help you become sleepy at night but won’t make you sleepy during the day like higher doses can. Buy the smallest dose you can find and cut the gummies or tablets down to size to make 0.25mg servings.
6. Turn off screens 90 minutes before bed.
Just like light wakes up your body in the morning, it can also keep you awake in the evening. Turn off screens and dim household lights in the evening to help your body wind down for sleep.
7. Don’t sabotage your schedule over the weekend.
For night owls it can be tempting to stay up late on the weekends or other days off. This can make it harder to adjust to an early schedule during weekdays. Dr. Reploeg recommended staying up no more than an hour after your usual bedtime and sleeping in no more than an hour past your usual wake time, even on days where you don’t have any other obligations.
You don’t have to commit to a 5 a.m. wake-up call but shifting your habits can make it easier to take care of yourself.
“Good health and longevity are linked to quality sleep in a multitude of studies; it is a core part of your overall well-being,” said Dr. Reploeg. “Making sleep a priority is a good habit to practice.”
If you have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking refreshed, talk to your primary care provider to find out if a sleep specialist can help.