Understanding sleep chronotypes
Are you intrigued by the concept of chronotypes and want to know how it can help you (or your clients) to optimise sleep, performance, health and wellbeing?
Your sleep chronotype indicates whether you’re a night owl or an early bird, and helps you optimise your sleep patterns for better focus, performance and productivity.
As someone in menopause, I want to get rid of night sweats, insomnia and brain fog as well as anxiety and low mood. For me, the research indicates that aligning with my sleep and other chronotypes will help me to reduce or eliminate these pesky symptoms.
I am trained in assessing and understanding chronotypes, so stick around to the end or check the show notes to find out how about a specific test I can help you with, to determine your chronotypes for sleep but also other areas of life like eating, exercise, focused work and so on.
In this episode, I’ll talk about
* What Sleep Chronotypes Are
* Are you a night owl or an early bird?
* Benefits of knowing your sleep chronotype
* Aligning to your sleep chronotype
What Are Sleep Chronotypes?
Feeling tired all the time has a massive impact on your mood, work performance, motivation to exercise, and willingness to get out and socialise.
We hear a lot about sleep hygiene and pre-bed routines to work out how to sleep better, but nobody is talking about chronotypes.
Chronotypes are what make us unique. Specifically, your chronotype is the behavioural manifestation of your circadian rhythm (also known as your ‘body clock’), such as when you prefer to sleep and when you are most alert and energetic.
Your natural rhythm also affects the timing of other events in your body like hormone release, meal timing, exercise timing and bowel movements.
In the dawning era of personalised healthcare, we are realising that the old, general rules like “you must get 8 hours of sleep per night” or “we should go to bed by 9pm” are not true.
The truth is – sleep is personal. You are unique in terms of your sleep needs. Emerging evidence suggests that there is a strong genetic component to sleep chronotypes, and that variations in chronotypes might have evolved in hunter gatherers who took turns sleeping so there was always someone to keep watch.
And once you know your needs, certain elements of your lifestyle affect your sleep and should be considered as part of the solution.
Are you a night owl or an early bird?
While there are several quizzes available that can indicate your sleep chronotype, your own personal experience is the key.
It can be challenging to identify your chronotype if your body is ‘out of whack’ for example if you are a shift worker, if you are carrying a sleep debt, or if you are going through menopause or acute stress that is affecting your sleep.
A simple way to work it out is to keep a diary over a week or two, perhaps when you’re on holiday, without work stress, deadlines, over exposure to devices or stressful travel to and from work.
During this holiday time, notice when you naturally feel sleepy and record the time.
Complete your usual pre-bed routine and let yourself fall asleep naturally.
Then in the morning, notice what time you naturally wake up, and record the time.
Over a period of days, without the normal external pressures and influences, you will start to see consistent sleep and wake times, and your natural sleep chronotype will be revealed.
Although we often hear the term night owl or early bird, there are four recognised chronotypes in a quiz by Dr Michael Breus, which are:
1. Lion – the early bird who likes to wake up early and be productive in the morning
2. Bear – accounting for about 55% of the population, their sleep and wake times tend to follow the sun
3. Wolf – the night owl, thought to make up 15% of the population
4. Dolphin – tend to be insomniacs
This is just one chronotype classification systems.
Benefits of knowing your sleep chronotype
If you know your sleep chronotype, you’ll be better able to manage your daily schedule and be alert, productive and focused at the right time.
Imagine of you knew how to structure your day so that you could get things done, get enough rest, feel motivated to exercise, and feel energized and at peace – and then have a good night’s sleep? That’s the power of knowing your sleep chronotype.
Sleep has a huge impact on your appetite, exercise and core temperature, so it also affects your ability to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
Various studies show that your chronotype is also associated with some of the ‘Big 5’ personality traits. Lions or early birds (‘morningness’) tend to be associated with conscientiousness and agreeableness, while neuroticism and openness, impulsivity, anger, anxiety and using substances tend to be more common in Wolves or night owls (‘eveningness’). The same studies show that morning people tend to do better in school, and evening people might be better at creative thinking and musicality.
Evening people also tend to be less physically active and sleep less during the week, and more on weekends which can lead to a higher stress response, elevated cortisol levels and a higher resting HR which are risk factors for a variety of sleep, metabolic and mental health concerns.
These are trends, not set in stone, because each person is subject to various external influences that might affect their sleep patterns and overall wellbeing.
Having said that, by aligning your schedule with your chronotype, you will more easily reduce adverse outcomes and be more productive, energized and calm.
Aligning your schedule to your sleep chronotype
Once you know your sleep chronotype, how do you align your schedule so that you can optimise focus, sleep, performance, productivity and recuperation?
While I’ll cover some specific hacks and tips in the next episode, these are some general guidelines to start implementing.
A good starting point is to experiment with going to bed at the time that suits you best, for example, 10pm every night.
Once you establish this time, work backwards and start experimenting with pre-bed routines that will help you have a good night’s sleep and allow you to actually get into bed by this time.
When you have a handle on those two things, your wake-up time should naturally set itself, and you’ll start waking up at a set time every day.
From there, you can work with your energy during the day to adjust your schedule if you can.
For example, early risers might have more energy first thing in the morning and so might do better with exercise, detailed thinking work and any sort of focused action-taking early in the day and could try scheduling those things in the morning if possible. You might also find it better to socialise in the daytime or late afternoon rather than at night as you’ll be winding down.
In contrast, night owls who go to bed later e.g. 11pm might have more energy late in the day, and so could need a more relaxed morning, where you ease into the day slowly, leaving exercise, socialising and intense work for the afternoon and early evening.
If you’re an in-betweener, you may find your energy peak is closer to the middle of the day and could prioritise focused work and exercise from late morning to mid-to-late afternoon.
It may be possible to rearrange your work duties to fit with these frameworks.
A key takeaway is that we are all unique, so experimenting is key as is a need to remove the overlay of stressors, overwork and responsibility that often get in the way of us living our best lives.
Sleep chronotypes are about more than just optimal bedtime, sleep quality and quantity. By understanding and aligning with your sleep chronotype, you can unlock your full potential in terms of productivity, focus, mental health, motivation to exercise, getting your eating right, and maintaining a healthy weight.
Contact me for support with determining your personal chronotype.
David A. Kalmbach, PhD, Logan D. Schneider, MD, Joseph Cheung, MD MS, Sarah J. Bertrand, PhD, Thiruchelvam Kariharan, PhD, Allan I. Pack, MBChB PhD, Philip R. Gehrman, PhD, Genetic Basis of Chronotype in Humans: Insights From Three Landmark GWAS, Sleep, Volume 40, Issue 2, 1 February 2017, zsw048, https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsw048
Gjermunds, N., Brechan, I., Johnsen, S.Å.K. and Watten, R.G., 2019. Musicians: Larks, Owls or Hummingbirds?. Journal of Circadian Rhythms, 17(1), p.4. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/jcr.173
Tristan Enright & Roberto Refinetti (2017) Chronotype, class times, and academic achievement of university students, Chronobiology International, 34:4, 445-450, DOI: 10.1080/07420528.2017.1281287
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