Would you rather watch a sunrise, or count the midnight stars? Do you have your creative energy and optimistic zeal when you pop out of bed in the morning, or when everyone else has gone to bed for the night? Or how about this—if you had to wake up at 6:00am, would you look and feel more like Mary Poppins or Oscar the Grouch?
Your answers will depend on your chronotype, a biologically hardwired tendency for your body and brain to function best at certain times of day. Most of you are somewhere in the middle—you don’t love waking up at 5:00 a.m. for a run, but you’re not the type to be buzzing with energy after midnight either. But many of us have more obviously advanced or delayed chronotypes. That is, we could be extreme morning larks or night owls.
Why Do Night Owls Have a Bad Reputation?
I’m personally a night owl. Back in college, I never signed up for classes starting before 10:00 a.m. and I could comfortably stay up past 2:00 a.m. partying—I mean, studying—without my energy flagging. And there was no problem with that in college! I had no 7:00 a.m. rounds or 8:00 a.m. meetings, so my body and brain could happily live on the schedule they wanted to. But the further I get into my professional career, the more my biology has to cater to the big bad world, which is designed by and for morning people.
I blame Benjamin Franklin. When he said, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” he didn’t follow that up with the caveat that this is only true for morning people! If he were speaking to the rest of us, he should have said, “Staying up, sleeping in, makes you healthy and happy in your own skin.” But unfortunately, his admiration for morningness has contributed to the stereotype that late risers are just lazy or immature.
Night Owl Coping Mechanisms and Health
And it's not only a problem of bad reputation. People with delayed chronotypes (i.e., night owls) are at greater risk for psychiatric disorders, addiction, hypertension, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even infertility. But this is not because owls are inherently unhealthy. It’s because we are forced to live a life of misalignment—our biology does not match up with our external demands, and this causes us to have less healthy habits for maintaining our biological clocks. For example, if you’re a delayed chronotype person, I bet you sleep in on weekends. You try to go to bed “at a decent hour,” but cannot help tossing and turning and eventually getting on your iPad late at night. Have you ever worn sunglasses in the morning because you’re just not ready to look human yet? These habits are totally understandable—I used to do all of them.
Unfortunately, these habits constantly mess up your inner biological clock, called the circadian system. This is no small deal, because the circadian system is responsible for keeping all of your biological functions on schedule and running smoothly, including your metabolism, hormone secretion, cognitive function, muscle tone, and even mood. If your body and brain are Grand Central Station, then the circadian system is the network of all the clocks at the station. When the big clock tower’s time always matches the train conductors’ times, which also matches all the computers’ times and each passenger’s watch, then things go smoothly. But imagine if that big clock tower’s time would just randomly change, and nobody could be confident that they knew what time it was. Imagine the chaos at this train station!
It’s no wonder shift workers, who have an even more extreme version of circadian misalignment, have greater health problems like obesity than their non-shift working peers. Even scarier is that shift work is the only non-chemical item on the American Cancer Society’s carcinogens list, meaning doctors agree that shift work increases a person’s risk for cancer. And even if you are not a shift worker, but have even a couple of hours of flip-flopping back and forth between your weekday sleep schedule and your weekend schedule, you are at greater risk for weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and depression.