Early Bird/Night Owl–which are you?

by Kassandra Lamb

My husband has been sleep deprived lately. He teaches part-time and this semester he ended up with an 8:30 class. This is problematic because he is a night person.

picture of an owl

photo by Dominic Schulz, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

I’m even more of a night owl. His normal bedtime is 12:30 a.m. Mine is 1 to 2 a.m.

“Well, why doesn’t he just go to bed earlier?” the morning people are asking themselves about now.

It’s not that easy. What people often don’t get is that being an early bird vs. a night owl is not a choice. Our individual circadian rhythms dictate when we are most alert and when we get sleepy. And these circadian rhythms are determined by a part of the brain that we have no control over.

Like my husband is now, I spent most of my working career sleep-deprived. And I’ve spent my entire life explaining to people who are not night owls that no, I can’t get up at dawn to go on that all day outing. If I do, I will be miserable, because I will be operating on four to five hours of sleep.

“Just go to bed earlier” is their response. But that won’t do any good. I will stare at the ceiling sleepless until the wee hours of the morning. Often I sleep less well if I go to bed before I am drowsy. And the longer it takes for me to fall asleep, the more likely I will start to worry about whether or not I will get enough rest. At that point, all hope is lost!

If you’re interested in how all this works biologically, read on. If you could care less about the biological mechanics, skip the next two paragraphs.

image of brain showing hypothalamus

The hypothalamus is that tiny blue structure (image by Balusen.com staff, CC-BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Our sleep-wake cycles (one of several circadian rhythms in the body/brain) are controlled by a tiny structure in our brains called the hypothalamus. This structure controls much of our physical functioning, mainly through its interaction with our endocrine system (the glands that produce hormones). In response to fluctuations in daylight, the hypothalamus signals the pineal gland to increase or decrease the release of a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin makes us sleepy and promotes deep sleep.

For the average person, melatonin levels start to increase around 3 p.m., when sunlight is becoming less intense, and peak at around 2 to 3 in the morning. But melatonin is affected by other things, such as our age and individual variations in circadian rhythms. For some of us, melatonin levels increase earlier (early birds), for others, later (night owls). On the opposite end, the peak will be later, so night owls, even if they get a full night’s sleep, will be less alert in the morning than early birds.

Sadly, our society is not kind to night owls. Indeed, we as a culture do not value sleep as we should. Instead of encouraging people to get adequate rest, we market power drinks full of caffeine and praise people who “burn the candle at both ends” as ambitious and dedicated.

But sleep deprivation is not a minor issue. It drastically reduces productivity, increases the risk of accidents and undermines good physical and mental health. We need to work toward supporting better sleep habits in the U.S.

a thrush with a worm

Does the early bird really get the worm? Heck if I know. 😉  (photo by Iain of Scotland, CC-BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Recently a writer pal blogged about 5 things she wasn’t going to apologize for anymore. One of them was being a morning person. She is absolutely right. Why should we have to apologize for or constantly explain our body’s natural circadian rhythms?

As with all innate traits, we need to learn to be more tolerant of those who are different from ourselves. So I will make a promise now: I won’t complain about my early bird friends who want to leave the party at 9 p.m. Nor will I growl at them when they offer a chipper “Good morning” at 9 a.m.

In return, please understand that I can’t “just go to bed earlier” and outings with me need to start at 10 a.m., not 7 a.m.

How about you: are you a night owl or an early bird? Do you get tired of explaining yourself to those on the opposite end of the spectrum?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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28 thoughts on “Early Bird/Night Owl–which are you?

    1. Kassandra Lamb

      I’m often up until three, Kathy. Don’t ya love how quiet the world gets after everybody else has gone to bed? 😀

      Reply
  1. K.B. Owen

    Cool post! I’ve also heard that all of our blue screens these days (computer, iPad, smartphone, etc) are interfering with the release of melatonin and making it hard for us to go to sleep.

    I seem to need more sleep than the average bear, so I’m kind of an early bird in leaving the party and a night owl in not wanting to get up early. Weird. 😉

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      You are so right, Kathy. The blue screens we are now so addicted to can be part of the problem. When I read late at night, I always use my old-fashioned, no back light kindle. Don’t know what I’ll do if it dies of old age!

      And I also need more than eight hours of sleep. I thought about including that in the post. Eight hours is the average, which means there are a lot of us who need more, and that can further complicate things if your circadian rhythms are not in sync with society.

      Reply
      1. Marcy Kennedy

        I used to push myself to stay up late and get up early because of that “achiever” stereotype and it led to increasing health problems. I don’t have an exact “bed time” anymore because I’ve been trying to listen to my body more (one of the benefits of being self-employed), but it seems I get sleepy sometime between 10:30 pm and 11:30 pm and I wake up best sometime between 7:30 and 8:30 am. My most productive hours are from about 1 pm to 6 pm. I don’t know if that makes me a night owl or an early bird 🙂 What I’m sure of is that if I try to push myself, I get less done even though I’m working longer hours.

        Reply
        1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

          I’m not sure you’re either, Marcy. You are *gasp* a normal person! LOL

          Seriously, good for you for listening to your body. And you are so right about pushing ourselves not really helping. I learned that the hard way!

          Reply
  2. August McLaughlin

    I love this, Kassandra. Such excellent points, you’ve made!

    I’ve often wished there were more “early bird” social events, as most go far too late for those of us whose brain need to wind down before 10pm. 🙂 I also really feel for anyone who has to wake up or stay up outside of their comfort zone on a regular basis. Society as a whole seems to discourage adequate rest, which is such a vital part of living fully and healthfully. It’s up to each of us, I suppose, to do our best to go against that grain. Respecting others’ needs seems equally important.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      So glad you enjoyed it, August, and thanks for inspiring the topic! And yes, sadly, we all too often have to “go against the grain” of society in order to take care of ourselves.

      Reply
  3. Jami Gold

    I’m definitely a Night Owl. When working 9-to-5 jobs (or earlier), my health has gotten so bad that I worried I had lupus. Not fun.

    The thought of going to bed before 11pm sounds crazy. And even 11pm sounds early, but any earlier than that is downright torture. Like you, I often sleep worse when I *try* to go to bed earlier to catch up, so it doesn’t help me at all.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Oh my! I had a lupus scare also, when my son was little and I had to get up even earlier to take him to preschool before I went to work. The doctors never did figure out what was wrong, although they ruled out autoimmune diseases eventually. Looking back on it, I was just plain exhausted from too little sleep.

      I’m with you. Eleven is the earliest I would even “try” to go to bed, no matter how early I have to get up the next morning. Better to sleep well for a few hours than to toss and turn all night.

      Reply
  4. Vinnie Hansen

    Good post, Kass. I info about the brain.

    One of the blissful elements of retirement is that I can sleep, eat, and go to the bathroom according to my needs rather than according to school bells. My natural rhythm seems to be to stay up until 10 or 10:30 and then to sleep until 7:30. Yup, I sleep 9 hours a night–sometimes more! 🙂

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Me too, Vinnie. I need at least nine hours to feel right. Thank God for retirement. I can now sleep in most mornings. 🙂

      Reply
  5. shannon esposito

    Since getting sick with fibro, if I’m not asleep by 10:30 I pay for it the next day with pain and fatigue. It’s cut down on my reading time significantly because my favorite thing to do used to be to read until 1-2 a.m. while the house was quiet. I guess I’m a forced early bird. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Avoiding pain and fatigue is a very good reason for becoming an early bird, but not good that it means lost reading time! I love to read late at night too. As you say, it’s quiet, and also the day is done, so no feeling guilty about what you should be doing instead.

      Reply
  6. Prudence MacLeod

    Early bird. Usually in bed by midnight and up by six or seven. If my beloved wasn’t a night owl I’d shift to bed at ten and up again by four. And no, I’m not one dang bit sorry. tee hee hee

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      LOL Good for you, Prudence! I’m grateful that I mated with another night owl. It’s gotta be tough when one partner is an early bird and the other a night owl.

      Reply
  7. Jennette Marie Powell

    Oh boy, YES and YES. I can’t say how many times I’ve wanted to reply to those “can’t you just get up earlier” people with a snarky “do you think I’ve never thought of that??” So yes, definitely night person who wishes I could live on my natural Eastern Vampire Time instead of EDT. In researching my Adrenal Fatigue, I learned that one other thing that contributes to this is cortisol. In a “normal” person, cortisol spikes around 8 AM and tapers off gradually throughout the day. But in some people, the spike happens later, and in those with adrenal fatigue, is more like a slight rise. “Just go to bed early” = “toss and turn” for me. Glad I’m not the only one! And pretty sure a 9-5 job is partly responsible for why it takes a long time to recover from Adrenal Fatigue. Thanks for the post!

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Eastern Vampire Time! I love that!

      I’m glad that several other people are commenting that they can’t “just go to bed earlier” either. So it’s not just me.

      That sucks about the adrenal fatigue and the cortisol being off. We don’t realize how much our bodies are controlled by hormones until they aren’t functioning properly!

      Reply
  8. Kristy K. James

    I suppose you might call me a night owl. I do tend to be more productive between midnight and six a.m. (especially between two and six), but insomnia has seriously fouled my schedule up. I’ve resorted to a segmented sleeping pattern now – meaning I sleep when I’m tired. It usually winds up being something closer to 2-3 naps every twenty-four hours, with each nap lasting from one to four hours (two and a half or three being the average). And then there are times when I must be catching up. Last night, I laid down for a nap around seven-thirty … and slept for almost seven hours. Then I dozed for an hour or so starting at five-thirty, then was back in bed and asleep by eleven-thirty … and I slept until four o’clock this afternoon. Twelve and a half hours of sleep in a little over twenty hours. The last time that happened was two or three years ago when I had bronchitis. 😀

    I’m with all of you on the early to bed, early to rise people. I’ve gotten very snippy about my health and schedule over the past year though. I’ve pointed out that family and friends wouldn’t leave work early to accommodate my weird schedule, so they didn’t need to expect me to do the same. Want to take Mom out for Mother’s Day … it had better be a dinner because I won’t be there for breakfast or lunch, not when I’m going to bed between seven and eleven most mornings. And I’ve gotten even snottier about restaurants. Since I CAN’T (not choose not to, but cannot) have gluten, I’ve given them a list of three places I know I can safely eat. If they want me to come along, it will be to one of those places because the days of me sitting there sipping a Sprite while they all get to eat are over.

    Yeah, I’m kind of looking out for me now. 😀

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      You are so a night owl, Kristy! No matter how late I post something on Facebook, you always respond.

      Good for you that you are standing up for yourself. One of these days, I’ll make it out your way and we’ll go to a place that serves all-day, gluten-free breakfast, at 6 p.m.!! 😀

      Reply
  9. Irv

    K: You already know how much of a night owl I am. Since leaving the work world, that has become more apparent. I’m often up until anywhere between 2 and 3:30 a.m. and 4 is not unheard of. When I worked in a 24×7 job, the overnight shift was great while the day shift was very difficult for me.

    Irv

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Retirement is particularly grand for us night owls, isn’t it, Irv? We get to stay up as late as we want. Although I’m usually in bed by 2 a.m., I have been known to go to 3 or 4, especially if I’m writing. I get my best ideas in the wee hours of the morning.

      One night (morning) I was typing away at 4:30 a.m. and my fingers started missing the keyboard. Not the keys, the whole blinking keyboard! I decided that great ideas flowing or not, it was time to go to bed. 🙂

      Reply
  10. Chris

    It looks like I’m in the minority here. I’m a morning person. Thanks for the post, Kass. Your scientific evidence shows there is some real basis in the categorisation of people as ‘night-owls’ or morning persons.
    For me retirement has also been a great boon because I can go to bed at 10 or 10.30 and get up at 5 or 6. Some of my clearest thinking is done early in the morning.
    One of my favourite things to do though is to go to bed at 9 or 9.30 and read for half an hour or so before dozing off to sleep.
    I used to envy some others who could stay up late and work before rising early. For a time I was doing that but it was very detrimental to my health. I am now less dependent on caffeine and avoid it after 5 pm.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Oh, I don’t know about minority, Chris. We have a few other morning people represented here.

      Sometimes I wish I was an early bird. I’d love to have that clarity of thinking in the morning!

      Reply
  11. Elizabeth Anne Mitchell

    Morning lark in a house of vampires, oh, I mean, night owls. I also need more sleep than anyone else in the house.

    Sometimes, I have to stay up just to talk to some of the resident vampires, but I do love the crisp mind and quiet of 4 a.m.

    Oddly enough, when I’m not working at a day job, I have a schedule like Kristy described, naps throughout the day.

    And after years of being quizzed on why I can’t be normal, meaning a night owl, I unapologetically embrace my inner lark.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Good for you, Elizabeth!

      Honestly, I occasionally wish I was a morning person. When we travel westward to Texas or California, I become one, for a few days at least until my system adjusts to the new time zone. I really enjoy watching sunrises for a change and having that long stretch of morning to get things done!

      Reply
  12. Karen McFarland

    I am so glad I didn’t miss this! I am so behind with reading blogs. Who knows when I will ever be settled. But in cleaning up my gazillion emails, there you were! And yes, I am a night owl. Always have been. I had heard at one time that your sleeping pattern was dictated by the time of day that you were born. As in, born in the morning, you were a morning person. Born at night and you were a night owl. I have no idea if there is scientific research that backs that theory up. but I was born at night and voila! I have never been able to function early in the morning. Ever. Even as a child. I was drug out of bed in the morning. So I completely understand Kassandra. You’ll get no complaints out of me. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Hmm, I’d never heard that theory before, Karen. I don’t know what time I was born, but my son has always been a night owl as well, so I think it’s more genetic. He was born at 4 a.m.

      Even as a baby he had a late bedtime. And in elementary school he went to bed at 10. There was no point putting him to bed earlier, because he wouldn’t sleep.

      Hope you get settled in your new place soon and life gets saner again (notice I didn’t say sane, just saner 😉 )

      Reply

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