You may have heard about the theory of animal chronotypes. ‘Chrono’ relates to time, and ‘type’ refers to the four animals: lion, dolphin, wolf, and bear, which correspond with natural sleep-wake patterns, based on an person’s internal biological clock.
While these animal chronotypes aren’t universally recognised by scientists, they may help you think about your own sleep patterns and how to take advantage of your natural tendencies to sleep better. It’s useful to remember that sleep patterns vary from person to person, and over a lifetime you may not fit neatly into any one animal chronotype. So it may help to cherry pick the tips below to create a more personalised programme of sleep tweaks.
Here are some tips for optimising sleep based on the four animal chronotypes.
The ‘Lion’ chronotype (early birds)
This chronotype is often associated with morning people. If you’re a lion, you’ll likely wake up earlier, be most active during the day, and feel sleepy earlier in the evening than other chronotypes. You may feel alert, and productive during the morning (think of the lion hunting at dawn) but start to fade from the afternoon onwards.
How to optimise your sleep as a Lion chronotype
- Establish a consistent sleep schedule: go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends.
- Your sleeping environment is everything. Keep it conducive to sleep – particularly during long summer evenings – with comfortable bedding, blackout curtains, and a quiet atmosphere.
- Avoid using electronic devices or engaging in intense exercise after dinner.
- Take advantage of your natural alertness and productivity in the morning by scheduling important tasks or meetings early in the day.
- Early morning exposure to natural light can help regulate your internal clock.
The ‘Bear’ chronotype (moderate sleepers)
The bear chronotype tends to have a balanced sleep-wake pattern – waking up and feeling sleepy at either end of the day. Think Goldilocks – not too early, not too late. Like their wild counterparts, which vary their sleep patterns with the seasons and food availability, human ‘bears’ have flexible sleep patterns and adaptability to environmental cues.
How to optimise your sleep as a Bear chronotype
- Practise good sleep hygiene and keep it consistent. If you have a good baseline sleep habit, you can adapt as you need to.
- Listen to your body's cues to optimise your sleep schedule.
- Build a repertoire of little hacks you can use in the moment. For example, if you feel drowsy in the afternoon, take a short nap, or get some exercise (preferably in the fresh air) to boost your energy levels.
- Find a work/life balance, and prioritise self-care to manage stress and avoid burnout.
The ‘Wolf’ Chronotype (night owls)
If you’re awake late into the wee small hours, howling at the moon and getting hairy palms once a month... Well, perhaps not the second two so much. But nocturnal wolf chronotypes do tend to stay up late at night and wake up later in the day. More energetic in the evening, you’re likely to need help (and a loud alarm clock) waking up early.
How to optimise your sleep as a Wolf chronotype
- If possible, create a sleep schedule that works with your natural tendency to stay up late and ease your way into the morning.
- Be mindful of your caffeine intake, as it can interfere with your ability to fall asleep once you do get to bed. Avoid consuming energy drinks or espresso coffee after lunchtime, to give caffeine time to leave your system.
- Try to schedule important activities that require alertness during your peak – in the late afternoon or early evening.
The ‘Dolphin’ chronotype (irregular sleepers)
If you fit the dolphin chronotype, you may find it challenging to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Dolphins are known for periods of alertness during the night, like the intermittent half-sleep cycles of dolphins in the wild. Irregular sleep patterns cause you to wake frequently, or make it hard to fall asleep.
How to optimise your sleep as a Dolphin chronotype
- Establish a consistent sleep schedule as much as possible, even though irregular sleep patterns may be challenging. A relaxing bedtime routine and a calm bedroom will cue your body it's time for sleep.
- Practise relaxation exercises, meditation, and other stress management techniques, to reduce sleep disrupting anxiety. If a busy mind is keeping you awake, try keeping a notebook next to your bed and jotting down what’s worrying you or occupying your mind.
- Limit your exposure to screens after dinner to help your body wind down.
- Consider seeking professional help from a healthcare provider or a sleep specialist if sleep disruption is affecting your mental or physical wellbeing.