Praising Early-Risers Over Night Owls May Not Be So Wise

By Lila Abassi — Mar 30, 2016
Night owls, we all know one, or we are ourselves. Humans show variable preference in diurnal phase – meaning late risers. These individuals could be diagnosed with delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD) which accounts for nearly 10 percent of all patients seen in sleep clinics.
Circadian rhythm via Shutterstock Circadian rhythm via Shutterstock

My sister and I couldn’t be more different. She is a spiritual dreamer who is in her top form at the wee hours of the night and loves to sleep in, whereas, I am the more scientific minded and regimented younger sister who feels profound guilt if I sleep past the rising of the sun.

Is one better than the other?  Historically, society has sung the praises of early risers and that probably has much to do with our hunter-gatherer roots. But we live in a post-industrial world and the utility of such a deeply-engrained belief no longer applies. It really does a disservice to those who are controlled by a different internal or circadian rhythm.

The circadian system is comprised of three parts: the internal clock; the anatomical area of the brain that responds to the clock (the suprachiasmatic nucleus); and the pineal gland that serve as the clock hands – which is where melatonin, the sleep hormone, is secreted.

Humans show individual preference for phases of activity and sleep, which is a characteristic referred to as a chronotype – a lark (early riser) versus an owl (late riser).  Interestingly, studies have shown chronotypes have major impacts on various areas of life such as athletic performance, personality traits that underlie behavioral and emotional problems, propensity for risk taking and morality. Additionally, an individual’s diurnal preference is largely determined by their genetics.

Our internal clocks or biological clocks are under the control of clock genes and environmental factors that enable our bodies to synchronize the clock to 24 hours and is generally set by cues of light and darkness. Dis-synchrony occurs when our internal clocks and external clocks (astronomical time) are not aligned.

Some people suffer from delayed sleep-phase disorder (DSPD), also known as delayed sleep-phase syndrome, which is a type of sleep “disorder” where the individual’s internal clock does not align with that of the general population or societal norms. As opposed to a 24-hour internal clock, these people have circadian periods longer than 24 hours. These individuals, if left to pursue their internal clocks, have a sleep schedule, for example, from 3:00 am to 12:00 pm and forcing these individuals to conform to normal business hours results in a form of persistent jet lag.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, people with DSPD display sleep stability if they are allowed to follow their preferential sleep pattern. Many of these people often seek treatment for chronic insomnia and visit sleep clinics and make up roughly 10 percent of sleep clinic patients.

Individuals who deal with this condition may inappropriately turn to chemical aids, such as stimulants or downers to help them maintain wakefulness, or induce sleep to override their circadian clock, and this has the potential for developing substance use disorders down the road among many other negative coping methods.

How economically feasible would it be to have employers create staggered work hours?  The benefits of such an endeavor could see it boosting productivity, decreasing potential for substance use disorders, improved morale – possibly decreased density of traffic on roads and public transportation. It would be worth actually doing a study that accommodates these creatures of the night and see any resultant changes in productivity —  if any.