Sleep Chronotypes: How To Find Yours And What It Means

Sleep Chronotypes: How To Find Yours And What It Means

Ever wondered why your other half or housemate can jump out of bed in the morning for a 5k run, while you would rather sleep in until noon? You might be surprised to hear it all comes down to your chronotype – the scientific name for your inner body clock. We went to two sleep experts to find out more.

First – what exactly is a chronotype?

“A chronotype is a guide to your body’s relationship with sleep,” explains psychotherapist and sleep expert Mark Newey. “From an evolutionary point of view, we have a simple circadian rhythm, waking with the light and going to sleep in the dark, although our bodies have developed different relationships with this pattern.” Science suggests chronotypes fall on a spectrum – while some people have no problem waking early in the morning and are most productive during the earlier parts of the day, there are also those who would prefer to sleep in the morning and thrive in the afternoon and evening. Evidence suggests morning chronotypes are associated with shorter circadian rhythm periods (i.e. less than 24 hours), while evening chronotypes may have circadian rhythms longer than 24.2 hours. The bottom line is, knowing how your body clock works could help you be more successful, knowing when your brain is optimised to tackle that tricky spreadsheet or when to hit the pillow to maximise your sleeping hours. After all, sleep has never been more important – it’s the new metric of wellness, with studies showing every major disease killing us in the developed world is linked to insufficient sleep, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular problems, stroke, obesity and diabetes. 

Can you tell us more about the different types?

As Mark explains, there’s more to chronotypes than morning larks and evening owls. “There are actually four chronotypes, which show you when to sleep according to your own internal clock, as well as how to maximise daily activities such as exercising, eating, concentrating and socialising.” Mark explains the four types are often illustrated as animal behaviours:

  • The Bear: “The bear allows the sun to govern their sleep pattern – they typically fall asleep easily and concentrate best in the morning.”

  • The Wolf: “This is the classic night owl, and often struggle to wake up in the morning, feeling more alive when they wake up at midday; they focus best between 12 and 4pm and often get a second wind at 6pm.”

  • The Lion: “This is your early bird, who likes to get up early and often wakes before dawn. They focus best up to midday and often fall asleep by 9 or 10pm.”

  • The Dolphin: “The dolphin struggles with following a particular sleep pattern, being easily disturbed by light and noise. They focus best between 10am and 2pm.” 

What’s the most common chronotype?

According to Mark, 50% of us follow the sleep-wake cycle of the ‘bear’, feeling at our cognitive peak around midday and slumping in the mid-afternoon. “Around 15-20% of the population follow the wolf; 15-20% the lion and 10% the dolphin. This hasn’t changed much over the years, but our sleep patterns definitely have, driven by increased stress and changing lifestyle – our bodies now produce higher levels of adrenaline, nor-adrenaline and cortisol (the fight or flight mechanism), none of which are conducive to sleep.” However, James Wilson, aka The Sleep Geek, believes our sleep-wake cycle changes throughout our lives. “You should think of your chronotype like your hair colour – you inherit it from your ancestors but it will change throughout your life. At the ages of ten and 55, your chronotype will be at its most similar. Between the age of 13 and your mid-20s, however, you are more likely to be an owl; science isn’t quite sure why, but it’s believed to be down to hormonal changes.”

Driven by increased stress and changing lifestyle, our bodies now produce higher levels of adrenaline, nor-adrenaline and cortisol, none of which are conducive to sleep.
Mark Newey

Any tips for discovering your chronotype?

If your energy levels peak and trough throughout the day and you’re not 100% certain which chronotype you fall under, James recommends looking to your parents or grandparents, who are more than likely to have a similar chronotype to you. James also advises thinking about how you sleep when there’s no pressure and no alarms: “The second week of a holiday is a good time to work out how you naturally sleep – when you get sleepy and what time you naturally wake up.”

How can your chronotype affect your health?

James explains that your lifestyle and environment don’t influence your chronotype but they can influence your sleep and wake times, which can take its toll on the quality of your sleep, which can, in turn, affect your health. For example, early school start times clash with teenagers’ natural brain patterns, resulting in insufficient sleep. Other studies have linked those who follow shift work with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, while for the ‘wolf’ chronotype, work routines in direct conflict with their rhythm can wreak havoc with psychological wellbeing. And if you’re regularly sleeping less than six hours per night, science shows this could be deadly. Sleep psychologist Hope Bastine warns of the health repercussions of continued sleep deprivation: “When we chronically rely on instant energy and sugary foods due to a lack of sleep, this is digging us into an early grave due to an increased risk of cardiovascular disorders, high blood pressure and diabetes.” Hope also references a study, which found one week of six-or-less hours of sleep per night alters 700 genes in the body, affecting brain function, emotional interpretation and overall behaviour. It’s scary stuff. 

How can you optimise your chronotype for better health?

While the experts say you can’t change your sleep-wake cycle, there are ways to adapt your lifestyle to your chronotype, rather than the other way around, in order to maximise sleep quality and improve your health. “Schedule your most important meetings during your peak productivity times and organise social activities during the hours that work best for you,” Mark advises. “Just try not to work against your natural sleep-wake cycle. If you try to work against it, you’ll have a tougher time falling asleep and staying awake during the day. You’ll also experience more disturbed sleep. Simply go to bed when you’re tired, instead of forcing yourself to stay up later or go to bed earlier.” James says the key marker of whether your sleep cycle is on track is to notice your productivity levels at 10-11am – if you feel alert and productive at this time, you’ve met your ‘sleep need’.

Anything else?

As we transition out of lockdown into some semblance of normality, James says the typical owl may struggle getting back into the routine of early alarms and shortened sleep. “If you struggle to wake up and consistently press snooze, consider investing in a sunshine alarm clock. These wake you up with a light that mimics the sun, and pull you out of the deepest stages of sleep. Also consider buying a Light Box, which is typically used to treat SAD (seasonal affective disorder). If you use one as you get dressed or have breakfast, it will help your body transition into daytime mode.” Regardless of your chronotype, sleep experts say exposure to daylight first thing in the morning is a foolproof way to hack your health. Exposure to morning light triggers your brain to produce less melatonin, the sleep hormone, making it an easy way to feel more awake and kick-start your sleep-wake cycle. 

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*DISCLAIMER: Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme.

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