When my children were small, my then husband decided he wanted to get up early, exercise, meditate, etc etc.

And he wanted me to do the same.

“No way”, was my immediate response.

“I have 2 small children they randomly are awake at random times at night, I can’t get up early”

I was also convinced I was a night owl, in fact I wanted to be a night owl…they were supposed to be creative types, right. Well I wanted to be one of those!

You must get up early!

When I started my business I came across more and more articles that told me..

‘All successful people are up at 4am’

‘Get your best work done before everyone else is up’

You know the articles I bet you have read them too. So, I became intrigued by the whole night early/early bird issue.

I was a night owl right….so I can’t do that getting up early thing….can I?

I am going to share with you all that I have learnt about sleep, separating myths from facts, and finding out if you are night owl can you change to an early bird.

So what do you need to know about sleep?

Let’s start with some facts…..Two processes control sleep, sleep-wake homeostasis and the circadian rhythm, which we often call the body clock. This is a (roughly) 24-hour cycle that regulates all our biological and physiological processes.

The circadian rhythm rises in the morning, ensuring we are awake and alert. It will reach a peak in the evening. After about 15 hours of being awake the pressure to sleep increases and so we become tired.

A number of factors that our sleep-wake needs including medical conditions, medications, stress, sleep environment, and what you eat and drink.

Light, however, is the greatest influence on our sleep-wake homeostasis. Specialised cells in our retinas process light. Then tell our brains whether it is night or day. This is why exposure to light can make it difficult to fall asleep and return to sleep if we are woken up.

We often hear about REM sleep being important, so why is that? During REM sleep one of the stress-related chemicals in the brain, noradrenalin, is switched off. This is the only time this happens. It allows us to remain calm, while our brains reprocess all the experiences of the day, helping us come to terms with emotional events.

How much sleep do I really need?

So to one of the big questions, how much sleep do I really need, as in what is the minimum I can get away with! I have researched and researched this topic.

I was really hoping to find some study somewhere that said honestly you can get away with 4 hours sleep without any long-term effects.

Yeah, and guess what? No, I couldn’t find one. Not without big holes the size of a black hole in space anyway.

In general adults do need between 7 and 9 hours sleep. The exact amount does vary between person to person.

How do you know whether you are a 7 hours person or a 9 hours person?

You are going to need to pay attention to how you function on different levels of sleep. Ask yourself the following questions:-

  • Are you happy and healthy if you have 7 hours sleep?
  • How long would you sleep if you didn’t have your alarm set?
  • Do you depend on caffeine to get you throughout the day?
  • Do you feel sleepy when driving?

What happens if you don’t get enough sleep

There is an awful lot of evidence that shows lack of sleep isn’t good for us…although I am sure you knew that really! In a recent study, participants were asked to reduce their sleep from 7.5 to 6.5 hours. After the reduction in sleep, genes that were associated with processes like inflammation, immune response, and responses to stress were more active. As well as increase in activity in genes associated with diabetes and risk of cancer. The reverse happened when they added an hour sleep from 6.5 to 7.5.

And how about a siesta?

So what about taking a nap….good or bad idea?

Taking a nap is common in Mediterranean, tropical and sub-tropical countries, which I presumed was due to keeping out the heat and resting in the hottest part of the day.

There is good evidence that an afternoon nap can be beneficial no matter where we live but the length of nap will have different benefits.

  • 20 min power nap – good for alertness and motor learning skills
  • 30 – 60min nap – good for decision-making skills, memorising vocab or recalling directions
  • 60 – 90 min nap – will mean you have REM sleep which is when new connections are made and so is good for solving creative problems.

If you can, and it fits into your schedule, there is no reason not to grab a quick nap!

Can owls change their spots?

So the topic that started a lot of my research on sleep. Night owls and early birds.

Is it possible to change from one to the other?

What totally surprised me, when I read about it in my research, is that genes play an integral part in whether you are a night owl or an early bird. Researchers discovered a ‘clock’ gene which is longer in early birds than night owls.

But, as with many things in life, it isn’t an either/or situation either. We are all on the continuum with extreme owls being one end and larks being another.

About 50% are neither. Those in this group will be able to shift their sleeping pattern a couple of hours either way as long as they have consistent bed and awake times.

If you do want to shift your sleeping pattern so that you can get up a little earlier than everyone else for some quite reflective time or a little work, this won’t be a problem at all for those in this group.

The rest are split between early and night types, and as you can probably guess these are on a continuum from mild to extreme.

17% of people have a definite ‘delayed sleep phase’ which does mean that they do get tired later in the day than normal.

Just 1% are true early birds, and have ‘advanced sleep phase’. These are the people that will get up naturally before sunrise, without any alarm.

There is also age effects as well, teenagers are by their nature night owls, so the fact that your teenager stays awake all night and then won’t get up is natural. Conversely the elderly are usually early birds.

So if you are a true night owl, should you listen to the advice and try to get up early to have a ‘head start on the day’? From all that I have read the answer is an emphatic NO!

Don’t end up sleep deprived…

True night owls may well have difficulty getting to sleep, and if this is you and you try to get up earlier you are just going to end up sleep deprived. So unless you can get to sleep easily then don’t try, it is better to have a good night sleep than it is to get up early.

I decided that I would throw myself fully into this topic and see, could I get up early? Am I really a night owl?

Well?….I am not a true night owl, but I think I am on the night owl end of that group of 50%…I can get up early but I really have to work hard at ensuring I get to bed. I seem to develop a second wind about 9pm. And when I say early I mean 6pm, there ain’t no waking up at 4am in this house. I won’t be doing any kind of good work at that time of the morning!

If you want to have a better idea of whether you a night owl or an early bird then try this simple test…

https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200607/identify-your-body-clock

So what do circadian rhythms tell us about when to work….

As I said earlier circadian rhythms are a 24 hour cycle that affect all our biological and physiological systems. So they don’t just affect sleep. Circadian rhythms affect how we work well, we have peaks and troughs in our mental and physical capacity.

Studies suggest we should perform our most challenging attention-demanding tasks at our peak time. So for early birds this may well be at 5am but the owls this may not be until 10am.

It has also been suggested that we do our most creative work at our non-peak times, as the brain is less good at filtering out distractions, and so may consider a wider amount of info allowing us to make connections we wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.

Other studies have shown no effect for when best to do analytical problem solving but have definitely shown that we should do insight problem solving (i.e. requiring more creatively) at less optimal times.

And when you eat…

From studies, all things being equal, when you eat is important. Some mice were split into 2 groups, one group was fed only during their most active 8 hours, and the other group were fed through out the whole day. The group that was fed only during their most active 8 hours were 40% leaner than those that were fed all day. And human studies shows that we should get the most of our calories earlier on in the day.

So we know that whenever you go to sleep, there are some simple rules to follow to ensure that you get the best sleep possible. There is no point being in bed for 8 hours if those hours are spent tossing and turning now is there! So here is a few tips to help you get to sleep and ensure your sleep is good quality as well as ensuring you get plenty of that all important REM sleep.

Getting a good night’s sleep

Whether you are a night owl, an early bird or somewhere in between, making sure you get a good night’s sleep is key and if you are struggling here are some ideas that may help:-

  1. Temperature is important to getting a good night’s sleep. Being too hot will prevent your core temperature dropping which is essential for switching on our ‘sleep mechanism’. A cool room is essential for a good nights sleep and if possible leave a window open so that air can circulate around the room.
  2. Studies have found that cold hands and sleep are associated with sleeplessness. So use a hot water bottle to keep your feet warm.
  3. Reduce use of electronic gadgets 2 hours before you go sleep, as the light causes a significant suppression of melatonin causing sleep disturbances. If you must use a computer in the evening try using f:lux (https://justgetflux.com/)
  4. How does your bedroom feel? Make it into a space that you feel connected with and so you want to be there.
  5. Have a wind down routine, whether that be a bath, reading a book, listening to music. This will prepare your body for sleep, but also build sleep associations making it easier to drop off when you do get to bed.
  6. If you are unable to sleep after 30mins, get up and move to another room, keep the lights dim and don’t do anything too stimulating. Try listening to soft music until you feel sleepy and then try again. Lieing in bed will associate bed with wakefulness, so don’t lie in bed awake.
  7. Keep to a routine – don’t have long lie-ins at the weekend trying to make up.
  8. Don’t consume caffeine or alcohol four to six hours before your bedtime. About half the caffeine you consume at 7 pm is still in your body at 11 pm. Caffeine is a known stimulant that can suppress your REM sleep and can be found in coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, non-herbal teas, diet drugs, and some pain relievers.
  9. Alcohol also prevents deep sleep and REM sleep. It will keep you in the lighter stages of sleep, causing you to possibly wake up easily and have a harder time falling back asleep. Avoid consuming alcohol several hours before bed to improve your chances of having REM sleep
  10. Daily exercise is proven to help people sleep and can help you stay in the REM stage of sleep longer. But a workout too close to bedtime might interfere with your sleep schedule. Try to get daily exercise about five to six hours before bedtime

So there you have it, no matter when you go to sleep ensuring you have a good length of sleep is vital, so if you struggle to get to sleep in the evening then just go with it. Do what works for you, using what you have learnt here, find a schedule that fits with you and the way you want to live your life.

I originally wrote this blog post for Your Virtual Mentors but is now no longer there. Paul kindly gave me permission to repost it on my site.