How to rise and shine when you're nocturnal by nature
Seattle Times staff reporter
There are two types of people on this planet — at least for the purposes of this story. Those of you who saw the sun rise this morning, and the rest of us, who are happy to take your word for it.
Folks who poop out after happy hour, and those who close down the joint. Matinee devotees or midnight-flick fans. Couric versus Conan.
You know who you are. In college, you either took 7:30 a.m. labs or switched majors to avoid lectures that began before 10.
Sleep experts say about 10 percent of us are true morning larks, 20 percent are bona fide night owls, and the rest are somewhere in between, some more larkish and others more owlish.
Have you ever wanted to see how the other half lives? Sure, some larks would like to make it through "CSI" without nodding off, and dream of dozing at least until the alarm clock buzzes. But more often it's night owls who want or need to change their feathers. They may have a more happening social life, but grown-up realities such as breakfast meetings or getting the kids off to school leave them in a torpor. Plus, the boss is starting to notice them dragging in at 9:30.
Don't quit your day job in favor of a bartending gig just yet. Sleep doctors say that with a few tools, the right motivation, rigid scheduling and several alarm clocks, you too, can become a morning person — or at least trick your boss into thinking you are.
Doable, but not natural
Take John Richards, perhaps the most indisposed morning lark around. "Mornings suck," he gripes after wrapping his 6-to-10 a.m. shift deejaying as "John in the Morning" on Seattle's eclectic-indie station KEXP-FM (90.3).
Left to his body's natural rhythms, he'd turn in well after midnight and wake around 10-ish. Instead, on weeknights, he's in bed by 9 p.m. in order to wake at 4:30 a.m. (That's right, one of the hippest guys in Seattle is asleep before most club-hoppers have slithered into their Sevens.)
After six years on this schedule, Richards hasn't grown any fonder of the routine, but within six months, his brain's internal clock was used to it, easing him awake moments before any of his three alarm clocks.
"I can't sleep in even if I want to," he says, more exasperated than proud.
The scenario sounds familiar to Dr. Michael Smolensky, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health and co-author of "The Body Clock Guide to Better Health." While he says he can reset your body's clock so you'll get enough sleep and reliably wake up on time, he can't turn you into Mary Sunshine.
The 24.5-hour day
The body tells time with a master clock in the brain, a pinhead-sized cluster of neurons in the hypothalamus that takes cues from optic nerves that signal sunlight. By sticking people in isolation chambers, scientists discovered that most people's internal clocks run a bit longer — about a half-hour on average — than the sun's 24-hour cycle. That's why, for most people, it's easier to stay up later and compensate by sleeping in than to force yourself to sleep early and wake early, explains Dr. Eliza Sutton, an acting assistant professor of medicine at the University of Washington. Morning larks are those rarer birds whose body clock is shorter than 24 hours, so they wake up raring to go.
Our body clocks are genetic and hardwired so chances are you've been one way or the other for most of your life, with some exceptions — adolescence and old age. A combination of developmental and cultural factors keep many teens awake until the wee hours of the morning, about the time many grandparents start stirring awake.
"Around puberty it becomes very difficult to force a kid to go to sleep, they are sleep-deprived but they just can't fall asleep," says Dr. Ralph Pascualy, head of Seattle's Swedish Sleep Medicine Institute. At the other end of the spectrum, "As we age, our battery winds down earlier and the sleep cycle advances."
In college, many people find their optimal rhythm and harness it. Larks join the crew team; owls discover they study best over the midnight oil. These morning folks may be asleep by the time the kegger is raring, but they will be vindicated when it's time to enter the real world. They show up before the boss and look like go-getters. Owls can either find a night-shift job, one with a flexible schedule or reset their body clock to join the 9-to-5-ers.
A body-clock mismatch also can be hard on lovebirds. If she wakes up on New York time but his clock is set on Pacific, she'll view him as lazy, and he'll grow bored spending evenings alone.
Some intractable owls have learned to embrace the night life. Lifelong owl Dorothy Bain, 68, tried everything to transform herself into a lark, from sleeping pills to light therapy, but after retiring, she realized she had the luxury of giving in to her nocturnal nature.
"I realized I could either go through the world as a zombie on everyone else's schedule or I could take advantage of my most productive hours," she says. So at 2 a.m. you may find her housecleaning, running the laundry, baking, sewing or painting. "Where is it written that you need to do the laundry at 7 in the morning? There are all kinds of things people never think of doing at night that there's no reason not do," she says.
Resetting the clock
Before you decide to jigger with your internal clock, ask yourself if you really need to become a morning person.
"There's no reason to reset your clock if there's no social or occupational consequences for you," Pascualy says. After all, we need people to run the other half of our 24-hour world. "But in our society there is a strongly held belief that getting up early is a sign of industrious, highly productive people," he says. In other words: Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
If you're a night owl with sunrise envy, sleep doctors say you can reset your body clock by following these steps:
• Find out how much sleep you really need. Let yourself sleep at least 10 hours, several nights in a row, to catch up on sleep debt, Pascualy recommends. Then experiment to see how many hours you need to wake up feeling refreshed. The standard advice is eight hours for adults, but some people feel best with only six and others can't function without 10 solid hours of shut-eye. Pick what time you need to wake up and count backward to select your goal bedtime.
• As soon as you wake up, get sunlight exposure for at least 15 to 30 minutes. Whether you take the time to walk the dog or drink your coffee on the patio, get outside. Dr. Al Lewy, sleep researcher and professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, says even on cloudy days, there are usually enough rays to signal to your brain that it's daytime. If you need to wake before dawn or it's just too dreary outside to kick your brain into action, you may need to sit in front of a light box. On the flip side, avoid light exposure in the evening.
• Go to bed earlier each night, in about 15-minute increments. This is the hardest part, so some doctors recommend using a melatonin supplement. Melatonin is a hormone made in the brain that tells the body it's dark outside, time to turn in. Lewy recommends taking a small dose (1/2 milligram) eight hours after you wake up. Melatonin has been the subject of controversy because its results in insomnia have been mixed, and side effects such as fatigue and constriction of arteries have been reported. Also, because it's a dietary supplement and therefore not controlled by the Food and Drug Administration the way drugs are, talk to your doctor before using it. Don't exercise within a couple hours of bedtime and skip caffeine after noon.
• Stick to your schedule. Don't let your wake-up time slip on weekends, vacation or holidays, Sutton emphasizes. If you stay up late on a Saturday night, don't sleep in more than 30 minutes on Sunday morning. One slip and your body will try to revert to it's default owl setting, she warns.
• If you've got the opposite problem — a lark who'd like to make it through New Year's Eve, for instance, just reverse the advice, Smolensky says. Expose yourself to light in the evening to help you stay up, and when you wake up too early, take melatonin to remind your body it's still dark outside.
Self-proclaimed morning expert "John in the Morning" Richards adds his two cents: "First of all, my recommendation is not to get up early unless you absolutely have to, because you don't want to run into the people who are out at that hour, basically, hookers, cops, cab drivers and morning DJs." But if you must, rule No. 1 is ditch the snooze button. "It is the biggest enemy." He also recommends preparing the night before. "I lay out everything, from the watch to the shoes, so I don't waste any time that could be spent sleeping. Plus, you don't make good fashion decisions at that hour."
But the bottom line is motivation. When he worked an early-morning shift on a freight crew years ago, Richards could barely pry himself from his pillow, but since he landed his dream job spinning for KEXP, he's never been late. "If you don't love where you are going, it will never be easy to wake up."
Julia Sommerfeld: 206-464-2708 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company