Your Chronotype Is Running Your Life - Exhibit A: Sleep

How Your Chronotype Affects Sleep

I always grew up saying, “I’m a ‘night owl’ like my dad and my grandma,” only knowing that that meant I liked staying up late as opposed to going to bed early. (This is still true and a huge part of why I’m not cut out for the 9-5 life.) However, I had no idea until about a year ago that there was a whole host of attributes that came with being a “night owl.” After hearing about Dr. Michael Breus’ book, The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype--and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More, I was really interested in finding out just why it was that I have such a hard time falling asleep before midnight, why breakfast doesn’t really appeal to me that much, and how I could stop beating myself up for wanting to sleep in until 9:30 (or later) every day. That’s when I took his chronotype quiz at www.thepowerofwhenquiz.com. It let me know that I am, as he calls it, a “wolf” - late to bed, slow to rise, prefer doing things later in the afternoon, and not lazy, just different. It really helped me just knowing that there were others like me and also that this was not something that I could just force my way out of. Believe me, I have tried to become a morning person. It has never worked. So, I did a little more research and here’s what I found.

The History of Sleep Research

The concept of chronotypes can be dated back to the early 20th century when psychologists and scientists became more and more interested in, and therefore researched more heavily, sleep and its effect on our bodies and day-to-day lives. A scientist named Franz Halberg coined the term “circadian” to identify all the living things that operate under a 24-hour biological clock or similar pattern. This includes plants, animals, and even bacteria. This means that our circadian rhythm is our internal clock that moves us along in hormonal release, when we digest our food best, when we have the most energy, and of course, when we fall asleep and when we wake up. Our brain talks to our body and our body talks back to our brain and we feel the shifts. Because the circadian rhythm is based on a 24-hour time frame and has much to do with the sun’s rising and setting, the initial thought was that there was morningness vs eveningness. There was even a questionnaire called the MEQ to help people identify and understand this characteristic about themselves. However, we know now that it was a bit limited in identifying only two types. That’s where Dr. Breus’ research comes in. But first, let’s discuss why sleep is vital to our health.

Why Sleep Is So Important

Sleep research has indicated that people are getting the least amount of sleep in human history and we’re seeing it in our health. Sleep is the time when your body repairs itself. When you sleep, your brain is super active. It is consolidating memories, creating new ones, sorting all the information that it took in during the day and making sure the rest of your body is getting reset for the next day. While you sleep, cells are busy throughout your body, communicating with one another and prepping to make sure that all systems are go when you wake up to function the next morning. Your heart and blood vessels are healing themselves. Your lungs are cleaning themselves out. Your liver and kidneys are processing and clearing junk. You absolutely want these things to happen, especially if you want to feel good. Not to mention, lack of sleep has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, and stroke. Good sleep will help you lose weight, perform better at work, be more creative, and ultimately enjoy life more.

Why Your Chronotype Is Also Important

What is my chronotype?

Dr. Breus shares some incredible research in his book not just about sleep, but about flowing with our genetic “bio-time.” He identifies four different chronotypes: The Lion, The Bear, The Wolf, and The Dolphin. The Lion is your super early riser, your “go-getter.” The Lion is extremely active and usually starts to slow down around 3 pm. The Bear makes up about 50-55% of the population. Most people are Bears and can usually wake up early for work on weekdays and stay up late on weekends. They are kind of the in-between people. The Wolf is the late night “creative” type. While Dr. Breus says that wolves typically don’t need as much sleep as the Lions and Bears, I somehow need 9 hours of sleep per night, ideally. The Dolphin is the insomniac, or whoever has difficulty with their sleep. In the introduction of the book, Dr. Breus shares research regarding how flowing with your bio-time can affect everything from cancer treatments, to running in a race, to weight loss, to intellectual performance. I know there are a lot of fads out there, but this sounds like something I want to pay attention to.

Universal Factors

Of course, it would be easy to categorize everyone in four different chronotypes and call it a day, but the truth is that there are even more factors that contribute to our energy levels, weight loss, and overall well-being than just our circadian rhythm or chronotype. At the same time, there are certain things that we know to be true for everyone - things that affect the human brain and body no matter what your chronotype is. Sleep research in the last decade or so has really helped us to understand sleep as the third major component of a healthy lifestyle. Here are a few things we absolutely know about sleep and how it affects everyone.

  1. Smartphones and TV are messing with our sleep.

    The blue light that is emitted from all of our computers, TV screens, and smaller devices are messing with our hormones. We need melatonin to help us fall asleep and stay asleep and blue light suppresses our melatonin production. Additionally, the blue light induces the kind of brainwaves that keep us alert and suppress the brainwaves that help us feel tired. YIKES. Also, when looking at our screens, especially our phones, dopamine is released. Dopamine is a feel-good hormone, but it’s the short-term feel good hormone and it’s how we become addicts. Therefore, if we’re not careful, we can become addicted to our screens. (And let’s be honest, most of us already are.)

    I know that we all think we’re immune to these effects. That we “fall asleep better” with some TV on in the background or that looking at our phones right before we go to sleep and slipping them under our pillows is just what we do. You may not even see a huge physical difference if you were without these rituals for a couple weeks, however, my question is why do you need these things so badly? What are you trying to avoid by having instant and constant entertainment in front of your face? If you can’t give it up or feel anxious without it, that might be a sign of addiction.

  2. Consistent sleep and rise times are really good for our bodies.

    Our bodies are structures. Our bodies need structure. Our bodies literally run in a specific way over and over again, every single day. They are consistent. And when we get sick or something breaks, all our bodies want to do is get back to performing and doing the same thing that they do every day. So why do we think we can just treat it however we want, or go to sleep at random times and wake up at random times and it will still function perfectly? Nope. I’m calling bullshit! If you want your body to feel better, you have to treat it better. Give your body the structure and consistency that it gives you. Give it a consistent sleep-wake cycle!

  3. What you eat and how often you move during the day directly affect how well you sleep.

    Eating too much sugar, or carbs that are processed into sugar, or alcohol that turns into sugar - ALL produce the wrong kinds of chemicals in your body for sleep. Avoid eating late at night. Avoid that alcoholic night cap that you think relaxes you. It actually messes with your sleep pattern once you’ve fallen asleep. And also - stop drinking caffeine late in the day. Yes, you can build up a tolerance to caffeine and it may not affect you that significantly, but as my college professor used to say, “If you need coffee in the morning to be a nice person, you’re probably not a very nice person.” Caffeine is a DRUG! Limit your intake to a cup or two in the morning. And drink plenty of water! I know it sounds weird that just drinking more water will give you more energy, but it’s true. Your body is made up of about 60% water, so when you drink water, you’re literally replenishing your body with it’s main fuel that it needs to function. Remember? Give your body the consistency it gives you.

    I hate the word “exercise.” It sounds like so much work and my brain just totally shuts down when I think of exercising. I prefer to replace it with the word “movement.” Movement just feels more peaceful. For the sake of this post though, I will say “exercise.” When you exercise, certain hormones are released in your body, hormones that can interfere with sleep if you exercise too vigorously too close to bedtime. Plus, your metabolism speeds up, which can make you hungry, and then you want to eat right before bed, and we know that doesn’t work well. Try your best to do earlier workouts. Gentle movement, however, like stretching or a slow walk, can help your sleep. I know we tell ourselves we don’t have time or we hate exercising or whatever your excuse is, but even the smallest amount of movement can help!

Getting Circadian Rhythm Sleep

Conclusion

Sleep is crucial to our well-being. I know that in today’s culture, especially for the millennials, the message is that we can sleep later and that we should be hustling or living it up now. But if you want to actually enjoy whatever it is that you’re building, you have to give your body rest. It works really hard! Additionally, if you think you can get to where you want to go without discipline, you are in for a rude awakening. Discipline is your best friend. It says, “I care about getting to where I want to go and therefore, I care about myself and my body.” If you can’t even be disciplined to eat, or move, or sleep in healthy ways, how do you think you’re going to be disciplined in your business or craft? Serve your body and it will serve you. Okay, rant over. What are the takeaways here?

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  1. Value your sleep. Know how important it is. And give your body the consistency it gives you. Maintain a sleep and rise schedule!

  2. Know your chronotype (get the book here) and do your best to flow with your bio-time. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re a little different. Lying awake at night thinking through all the things you didn’t do right during the day is definitely going to mess up your sleep.

  3. Step awaaaaaayyyy from the screens. Charge your phone in another room. Put a sheet over your TV if you have to. Instead, listen to a podcast or read a book. Break the screen addiction and find other ways to wind down.

  4. Eat good foods and give your body some movement during the day! When you’re doing these things, you are choosing to care for yourself. (Bonus tip: And when you treat yourself right, others will, too.) Your choices regarding the self-care of your body permeate into every aspect of your life!

I really hope you learned a few things in this post and I hope it gave you some motivation to take a few steps of progress toward being healthier and feeling better. If you have thoughts to share or questions to ask, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email here. And don’t forget to share this with your friends! It’s a lot easier to get healthy with help. :)


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