I am a night owl. Anyone who knows me is well aware of this fact.
My husband, an early bird-type whose brain doesn’t function well past 9 p.m., but is annoyingly chipper around the time the sun rises, has learned the hard way not to try to engage me in any meaningful conversation before 9 a.m.
It’s a key reason we’re still married after nearly 34 years.
Still, I’ve endured a lot of grief for my night owl ways, and I understand that even though I’m not alone, much of the world considers people like me deficient.
Benjamin Franklin, who famously wrote, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”— even though, by some accounts, he didn’t always follow his own advice — wasn’t the only one to promote the idea that early risers are more virtuous, industrious and successful.
Indeed, this notion has prevailed throughout much of recorded history. Going to bed and getting up early means you are just, well, better.
Nonetheless, I remain unashamed and unrepentant. My internal clock seems as natural to me as my curly hair and my tendency to overthink just about everything — including what my sleep patterns really mean.
So I did a little research.
The first thing I learned is that, as I have long suspected, there is ample evidence to support the idea that our circadian rhythms are genetically based. We are pre-programmed to favor certain waking and sleeping styles, whether night owl, early bird or something in between.
In short, we are born that way.
But what I really wanted to know is whether the early bird lifestyle really is superior. And it is in looking at this question that things get a bit murkier.
There is some evidence that early risers are healthier and live longer. Some studies have found that night owls exhibit higher rates of depression, high blood pressure, poor diets and substance abuse. There’s also reason to believe that they do, in fact, procrastinate more.
On the other hand, some research findings indicate that night owls are wealthier and, ahem, a wee bit smarter than early birds.
One rather peculiar study about a decade ago involving the San Francisco Giants found that night owl baseball players competing in night games outperformed early birds who played in day games.
I’m not sure how that helps long-suffering Angel fans, but I’ll think about that later.
Much of the research on sleep patterns, however, remains inconclusive; there’s still much for us learn. One big question in the whole early bird-vs.-night owl debate is whether the perceived negative effects of being a night owl are intrinsic, or if they are largely a result of having to live in a world that isn’t built for them.
Put another way, are night owls lazy wastrels destined to fritter away their abbreviated lives of debauchery? Or is it more accurate to think of them as square pegs trying to fit into the round hole of a society and economy structured around early starts?
If the latter is true, then night owls might be seen as somewhat akin to left-handed people, who are also known to have a built-in deficit compared to the dominant, right-handed population.
“I’d say there is a big social environmental element,” said Dr. Jay Puangco, chief of service for Sleep Medicine at the Hoag Voltmer Sleep Center.
“Someone who’s a night owl who still has to get up early — that’s not healthy.”
Whatever one’s tendency, the main focus should be on quantity, quality and consistency of sleep, Puangco said.
And on all three factors, our workaholic, tech-obsessed society often falls short.
Sleep deprivation is increasingly recognized as a major health issue.
“It’s almost a badge of honor if you don’t sleep, like you’re working harder,” he said. “But if you get enough sleep you enter the day with more clarity. You actually work smarter.”
Puangco said that of the three pillars of good health — diet, exercise and sleep — he chose to devote his career as a neurologist to sleep because “it impacts everything,” including cognition and the cardiac and immune systems.
“Nothing can substitute for sleep.”
He is encouraged that sleep issues are starting to receive more attention. For instance, he said, a few years ago, the huge and influential Consumer Electronics Show began featuring a section on sleep.
Big-name athletes, recognizing the importance of sleep to optimizing performance, have hired “sleep coaches.” Some people have started tracking their sleep on their smart watches.
“Everyone is recognizing that sleep gives them the edge,” he said. “It’s kind of a secret weapon.”
So what does this mean for the night owls of the world?
Some health care specialists, noting the growing awareness of distinct biological rhythms, argue that this is one more reason why we should move toward more-flexible work environments. And, in an effort to conform to teenage sleep patterns, many schools are adjusting to later start times.
But I remain skeptical. Minor changes aside, I am resigned to the reality that my vampirish sleeping proclivities won’t be widely embraced anytime soon.
I will never be the one to catch the proverbial worm, but I can live with that. I’ll settle for a midnight snack and a good book while the rest of you are dreaming.
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