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Are you a morning or night person? Why are certain people wired to be more productive at specific times? Can you be a morning person and suddenly change, and vice versa? And does being either affect our health? Keep reading to find out.

Tick tock tick tock go the many clocks

This division between early birds and night owls, we call chronotypes. Morning people (aka “larks”) tend to wake up early in the morning and go to sleep at a respectable hour, while night owls are most alert at night and sleep quite late. This pattern can vary over a person’s lifetime (I am a converted morning person myself). But the slight variation in this pattern is dependent on many factors such as genetics, biology, environment, lifestyle and mental health.

Data from 23andMe, a DNA genetic testing company, and the U.K biobank, analysed the genes of more than 700,000 people and found that a much of our chronotype depends on our genetics. Our genes, in turn, can affect our biological/body clock. Our biological clock controls our circadian rhythm. Telling our bodies when to be active, hungry, tired, sleepy and when to release important hormones. This clock runs repeatedly in a close to 24-hour cycle and includes our alertness, body temperature, production of cortisol (a stress hormone that is probably permanently hanging around in my body these days) and cognition (memory, intelligence, mental alertness). Interestingly, men are more likely to be night owls compared to women, and we, women, become more lark-like as we get older. The body clock works hand in hand with external factors. There’s a solar clock, which depends upon the sun to provide light and warmer temperatures during the day. And a social clock, one that you see and hear when you start your day and which sets the time for you to go to work, school, eat and generally get on with your life.

Will the afternoon-ers and nappers please stand up

While most people fall on either side of this “morningness-eveningness” spectrum, it is completely possible to be neither! A large scale survey study published this year identified two other possibilities that lie somewhat in between. The “afternoon” type and “napper” are their own special breed. Afternoon-ers tend to be sleepy in the mornings and evenings, with their peak alertness occurring between noon and evening. On the other hand, nappers, tend to be sleepy from 11am to 3pm and tend to feel alert in the mornings and evenings. It’s important to note also that you can be a distinct chronotype or a combination or not fit into any group at all. And, according to other research, there may be more than these chronotypes.

Does being a certain chronotype affect our health?

The simple answer is yes. A 2012 study, found that night owls had higher heart rate and blood pressures and lower heart rate variability (not a good thing). They were also found to have poor sleep quality, often smoked more and were less physically active than morning types. Interestingly when stress (doing a mental arithmetic test) was applied, both morning and evening people struggled with handling it in the evening compared to the morning! Night owls also have an increased risk of obesity, depression and type 2 diabetes. This could very well be due to them suffering social jetlag (a term used to describe the interference of sleep we experience due to social activities like work and school). Most night owls are forced into this social jetlag and are forced to make up the sleep debt on their free days, which may be linked to lower levels of well-being as they are constantly fighting their natural clocks.

Night owls don’t despair! Though research suggests early birds have better health, it is unclear whether waking up early is the cause or the result of the improved health. Most of the studies report correlation—which is not the same as causation. Of course, adopting a good diet, being active and generally making healthy choices go a long way. And there is still a long way to go in understanding exactly how our genes and environment contribute to our body clocks—which influence our chronotype and in consequence our health.

Change your chronotype, change your life?

Our performance varies considerably throughout the day, and knowing whether you’re an early bird, night owl or somewhere in between can help you plan your day and optimise productivity according to your best times. As with most habits, consistency is key. Make slow changes, over days or weeks then stick with them for maximum effect. It will take discipline, but it can be done.

 

Chances are you already know if you’re a morning or a night person, however, if you’re not sure which chronotype you are, try this quiz (used by experts) to figure it out!