Everyone knows the saying ‘the early bird gets the worm’. But have you heard ‘the night owl throws more interesting dinner parties’? No? Perhaps that’s because we just made the second statement up. But you can imagine it being true.
Early birds may have an advantage in terms of sleep quality and duration, as their sleep-wake cycle aligns more closely with the natural light-dark cycle, and corporate timetables. And this benefit can undoubtedly influence long-term health. But just like night owls, early birds can still experience sleep problems if they don’t get enough restorative sleep.
How do I know if I’m an early bird or a night owl?
Sleep preferences and circadian rhythms can vary among individuals, and most people fall somewhere between the two feathered friends. While there’s no single, definitive way to change your natural sleep-wake cycle, sometimes known as your chronotype, there are strategies that can be used to shift your sleep schedule towards an earlier bedtime and wake-up time.
Becoming more of an early bird can be challenging, as it often involves shifting one's internal body clock, or circadian rhythm, which is influenced by so many genetic, age-related and environmental factors.
Become more of an early bird, with help from simple sleep science
Try gradually adjusting your waking and bedtime to be earlier by just15 minutes – and try this for a week. Next week, try shifting another 15 minutes, and so on – to help your body adapt gently to the new schedule without feeling exhausted or disrupt your precious sleep. This baseline sleep schedule should also be as consistent as you can make it, even on days off, to better regulate your body's internal clock.
Enjoy some natural sunlight on your face for a few minutes first thing in the morning. This simple routine helps regulate your circadian rhythm and supports wakefulness early in the day. Open your curtains as soon as you wake, take a walk outside, or use bright light therapy if you don't have access to sunlight in the depths of winter.
It helps to avoid smartphones, tablets, and computers between dinner and bedtime. As you probably know, the blue light they emit disrupt your body's melatonin production. Switching off the TV and dimming the lights an hour before bed is also worthwhile for drifting off more quickly. Stimulants like caffeine take hours to leave the body. So if you can’t forego your daily fix, aim to enjoy it before noon.
Regular exercise has been shown to improve the quality of night-time sleep. Try doing more vigorous activity earlier in the day, and keep calming restorative exercise – such as a gentle walk, stretching, tai chi or yoga – for the evening. It can be beneficial to allow at least two hours between eating and bedtime too.
An earlier night starts with creating a routine to wind down and relax, which provides ‘it’s time to sleep’ cues. This may include reading, taking a warm bath, meditation or deep breathing. Ensure your sleep environment supports your adjusted routine – particularly when long summer evenings are working against you. Keep your bedroom slightly cool, very dark and quiet, and invest in a comfortable, breathable mattress and supportive pillows.
Changing your sleep schedule can take time. It could take weeks for your body to fully adjust to a new sleep routine, so be kind to yourself. Stay consistent, and try to avoid disruptions to your earlier bedtimes as much as you can.
While the scientific studies below suggest we can shift the sleep-wake cycle earlier, becoming more of an early bird may not even be possible for everyone. It could be a better use of your time and energy to work on getting quality sleep, whatever time of day or night. If you have persistent sleep disruption or other concerns about your sleep schedule, please do talk to your healthcare professional.
Crowley, S. J., Lee, C., Tseng, C. Y., Fogg, L. F., & Eastman, C. I. (2015). Combinations of bright light, scheduled dark, sunglasses, and melatonin to facilitate circadian entrainment to night shift work.