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Who has the secret to good sleep - the owl or the lark?

Updated: Feb 1, 2023



All my life, I have been told that when it comes to sleep, we are either an ‘owl’ or a ‘lark’. Or in other words, those of us that come alive during the night hours and can’t bear the thought of leaving bed in the morning, and those of us that seize the day and then curl up as soon as darkness falls.

Growing up, there was division in my household. My mum loved mornings but never saw past 10pm and my dad would do his "best work" at 1am and only rose in the morning if he absolutely had to. It was clear that if my mum didn’t keep to a strict regime around sleep, she wouldn’t sleep. Yet it all seemed so much easier for my dad - he didn’t have to worry about not sleeping, it would always happen. It was just a question of when did he fancy sleeping.


My early experiences got me thinking… are those of us that struggle to sleep usually larks and those of us that sleep anywhere, anytime, more likely to become owls?

Well it certainly played out that way for me. When I grew up, I got my mum’s “sleeping curse”. I was terrible at it. My monkey brain would keep me wide eyed and alert until the early hours and then when I finally dropped off, the slightest noise would wrench me right back out of that glorious sleep. For a while I medicated with prescription sleeping pills, before realising I’d quadrupled my dose in the space of a month, so thought better of it. I managed to wean myself off those, only to get addicted to the over the counter ones instead. I tried everything you are meant to try to get to sleep - from no TV in the bedroom to lavender oil to baths. Whilst some strategies really helped, I knew the only way I could manage life (and still turn up to work) was by giving myself the best possible chance to sleep. So just like my mum, that meant getting to bed early and ideally only seeing beyond 10pm on very special occasions.


Luckily for me, my husband gets it. If he’s out late, he sleeps in another room - a great mechanism for avoiding rows and I would urge anyone who hasn’t tried it, to do so. Most of the time though, he happily comes to bed at the same as me and as we hurtle towards 40, we’ve fully embraced the lark life, even choosing to do so at weekends!


Now, we have friends who think that what we do is, quite simply, bizarre. Just like my dad, they are much more fluid about things. Perhaps they’ll do something active after work, eat at 8.30pm, watch TV and then head to bed only once they feel they’ve had a proper night, say at midnight. The next morning they will sleep until the last possible moment before work. Their weekends are for catching up on any lost hours of course - those mornings are sacred! Ideally they will not see the light until 10am.

I can really see the appeal of this see where the night takes me mentality. I can even imagine what it could feel like to be most inspired at night time - plenty of poets and philosophers have felt the same upon gazing at the stars in the night sky. I just know I’d be a hot mess of a human being if I tried it.

So, whilst we know the two groups have different outlooks on how to get the most out of their days, is there actually a difference in how well either group sleeps?


As I’ve mentioned, I've noticed that a lot of early risers are that way inclined in order to regulate their sleep, which would otherwise be challenging. This could suggest that getting to bed early has benefits over going to bed late. But really, aren’t we all told that it’s about getting the necessary amount of hours each night, regardless of the time we get them? As we are all individuals, the exact amount of sleep we need is different, but most adults need between 7 and 9 hours (1). Contrary to what many CEOs and politicians seem to believe, it is unlikely that we can survive well on 6 hours or less. We might get successful fast with this strategy, but our health will suffer the consequences. So if like me, you’re someone who needs to be up early for work, it would be wise to get to bed early. But if you don’t need to rise until later, a midnight bedtime could work just fine.



Quantity of sleep is important but the more crucial factor is actually quality of sleep. Every night we go through different stages of sleep beginning with non-REM (non-rapid eye movement sleep), followed by a brief period of REM (rapid eye movement sleep) and this cycle continues through the night approximately every 90 minutes. It is in non-REM that we experience deep sleep which is vital for many of our bodily processes. When we are in deep sleep our body regenerates cells, grows and repairs tissues and bones, refreshes the immune system and clears out the brain to support memory and learning (2). So regardless of the time you fall asleep, if you are getting enough deep sleep, you are doing just fine. In fact, sleeping for 6 good quality hours is better than sleeping for 9 bad quality hours. The Sleep Council say that interrupted sleep is as bad for you as just four hours sleep a night! This is because it disturbs our circadian rhythm - or our body clock - which brings us on nicely to the issue of sleeping time consistency.


Circadian rhythms are 24 hour cycles run by a master clock in our brain and they signal the body to carry out essential processes (3). The most well-known is the sleep-wake cycle which signals the body to be awake, alert and active during the day and then to shift into restorative sleep at night. As you can probably imagine, the sleep-wake cycle likes regularity - it gets very confused when we change our sleeping and waking times or when we wake up in the middle of the night. So although it may send shivers down the spine of those who like a weekend lie-in, there is good reason to wake up at the same time every day. In addition, this cycle takes it cues from when the sun rises and falls, with darkness signalling the brain to produce the sleep hormone, melatonin. So in an ideal world we would get up when it gets light and go to sleep when it gets dark, but even more importantly for modern times - we need to take care to avoid ‘fake light’ from devices at night.


So, there is actually little difference between an owl or a lark's potential to sleep well. Whatever your preferred sleeping time, it is vital for all of us to focus on getting enough deep sleep. We increase our chances of getting this precious kind of sleep when we allow enough time to sleep overall (7-9 hours) and when we regulate our body clock.


Here are some tips to help you achieve a good night's sleep:

1. Create a wind down routine


Unfortunately, scrolling through instagram in bed does not set the tone for a restful night. The blue light messes with our body clock and the content has the potential to keep your mind whirring. Ideally, switch your phone off at least two hours before bedtime so your brain has a chance to relax. Take a bath, do some stretching, read an easy going book. Listen to your body and do what it needs to get ready for sleep.


2. Make your bedroom for sleep and sex only!


If you use your bedroom for watching TV, eating or working, your body will get confused and start preparing for daytime activities rather than sleep. Make sure that your bedroom is quiet, cool, completely dark and comfortable. Removing devices, using blackout blinds and sleeping in natural, breathable bed sheets will help.


3. Work with the light


Our bodies produce melatonin when darkness falls and they stop producing it when it gets light. Try sitting outside or taking a walk first thing in the morning to absorb as much light as you can. Use mood lighting at night to help your body get into it’s relaxation mode.


4. Eat early


If we eat close to bed time, our bodies are still highly active, working to digest what we’ve just fed them! Try eating 2-3 hours before you go to bed at the same sort of time each day, to help your body clock regulate. If you can’t avoid eating late, it would be wise to stay away from high fat meals which are harder to digest. Finally, switch out that afternoon or evening coffee for a herbal tea - caffeine has a 12 hour half life so drinking a cup at midday means you will still have some in your system at midnight!


5. Avoid naps


If you’re struggling to regulate your sleep, it’s best to make sure you’re as tired as possible by bed time. Of course, if you are coping with a hangover, I get that the struggle to keep your eyes open is real… just make sure your nap is less than 30 minutes.



References


(1) https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-02/luhs-hms021115.php

(3) https://www.sleepfoundation.org/circadian-rhythm


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