Night Owl?

It may be in your genes.

Esther Chung

There is no doubt that many have heard the quote: “The early bird gets the worm.” More often than not, it is said in reference to sleeping habits, implying that it is better to wake up earlier. But as much as they would like to do this, a great number of people find themselves struggling every day to get up out of bed. Now, there may be an explanation, and a fix to these pestering problems.

Most people attribute getting up late to laziness and bad sleep habits, believing it is entirely the individual’s fault. However, recent scientific research proves otherwise. People today generally know about circadian rhythms: a 24-hour rhythm of the body that regulates bodily functions such as sleep. However, what’s new is this: there may be a gene that decides the specifics of the circadian rhythm. According to researchers in the US and Canada, a common gene called PER1 is linked to circadian timing, which could decide whether someone is a night owl or a morning lark. This helps to explain the reason why some people are able to jump out of bed at five in the morning, while other people can sleep like a log until noon. It is also proof that the fatigue some experience early in the day is not just a consequence of bad sleeping habits, but also the genetics of the individual.

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What is even more surprising is that there are more differences between a morning lark and a night owl than the obvious contrast in sleep patterns. German scientists at Aachen University conducted a study that scanned brains of people who were morning larks, night owls, and in-between. The results of this study stated that there was “less integrity of white matter” (less of a fatty tissue that facilitates connections in the brain) in night owls than in early risers and those in-between. This is not good news for those that tend to sleep and wake later than most, as less white matter in the brain is linked to depression and disruption of normal brain functions. However, there is a plausible explanation for this.

The reason why night owls may experience such symptoms could be due to the discrepancy of a normal schedule with a night owl’s natural tendencies. Because most people are able to function early in the day, every day events such as school are scheduled at times that are too early for some to handle. These things pile up, creating an effect similar to jet lag, and over time, can create long-term health problems.

Sound bad? Luckily, the positives of being a night owl outweigh the negatives. Night owls tend to be more creative, and studies have shown that night owls are generally more productive. Paired with efficient schedules, these success-bringing traits are what makes being a night owl a gift rather than a curse. The ultimate deciding factor on whether this characteristic is a gift or a curse comes down to one thing: how time is used.

The worst thing about being a night owl is the unending fatigue that comes with it. Trying to follow a schedule that simply does not work with an individual’s biological rhythm wrecks havoc on many of their systems, leading to decreased health. Although it is important to note these negative symptoms linked to being a night owl, one must also remember that these problems can be overcome with a bit of work.

Through tweaking daily habits and engaging in a healthy lifestyle, a night owl’s struggles can be significantly reduced. “I use an alarm app on my phone to really wake me up,” says sophomore Angel Zheng, who classifies herself as a night owl. “With a normal alarm clock, I usually snooze it or sleep through the alarm, but thanks to the very annoying alarm app I use, I rarely miss my bus anymore.” Many other night owls seem to agree that certain apps greatly alleviate problems such as not being able to wake up in the morning. Lindsay Goldwert at Fast Company, a business media magazine, writes about her experience with these kinds of apps, “My husband has known me for 10 years and did not think he would ever see the day when I was up and around an hour before I needed to get somewhere.”

Thanks to scientific research, it is now known that night owls are genetically predisposed, and we can stop blaming them for their sometimes inefficient sleeping and waking tendencies. With this discovery, changes are occurring at steady rates. Companies are beginning to create more flexible work schedules and schools are looking towards more compatible start and end times.

On a smaller scale, night owls can use this knowledge to their own benefit. By paying attention to sleeping and waking tendencies, night owls can stop fighting against their natural rhythms, and start to personalize unique schedules that work out for their health and convenience.