Sunday, November 3, 2013

Everyday Jet Lag

Some people are larks. Others are owls. You cannot change which one you are.

If you are a night-owl like me, you can spend a lifetime forcing yourself to get up earlier than your body wants to. You will do that through your school years, and, for most of us, through your working life. Even in retirement, you might find a reason to get up early. In my case, two wonderful grandkids show up at our kitchen door before 7 a.m. every weekday. It’s worth getting up, but it’s never easy.

Theoretically, we can drop the kids at school and be back in bed by 9 a.m. But by then it has taken so much effort to be awake and talking that I can’t just pop back into bed. Lately, when I do go back for a nap, I’ll plan on sleeping for an hour but find myself waking up three hours later. On weekends I’ve been sleeping until 11:30 unless I set an alarm. I have blamed this in part on my own biological rhythms and in part on the fact that daylight hours are becoming shorter in our part of the world. I tried going to bed earlier than usual, but I lay awake longer than if I’d stayed up..

The New York Times Magazine of October 20, 2013, reports what I’ve known for years: Scientific research shows that each individual has a unique daily biological clock, or circadian rhythm, and it’s genetic. (I’ve known this because 30-some years ago I worked with a professor at the University of Minnesota whose job included promoting awareness of chronobiology research findings.).   

In the Times story, Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich and a leading expert in sleep studies, groups people into three “chronotypes,” designated as early, intermediate, and late. He and other researchers have found that late people—night owls, as my mother called me—suffer the most from having their schedules interrupted. And their schedules are interrupted often, because the world tends to favor early start times.

“If you are forced to wake up earlier than your body naturally would, you suffer from what Roenneberg calls ‘social jet lag,’” says the magazine. Various studies around the world have linked this “jet lag” to increased levels of weight gain, depression, and changes in white matter that may make the brains of night-owl types less efficient.

I pause a moment to let this sink in, for those of us whose brains have become less efficient.

The Times story reports that being a person of the night is not just a bad habit, as some might believe. It says in a study reported in the May issue of the journal Chronobiology, “researchers found that late chronotypes tended to have activity in genes that contribute to later sleep onset, offering further evidence that the urge to stay up late or to rise early is not a lifestyle choice but resides in our DNA.”

Roenneberg has a suggestion and an observation.

His advice to late chronotypes: Get outside more, because soaking up sunlight helps move most people, regardless of chronotype, toward an earlier sleep time.

In addition, he has found that Daylight Saving Time disrupts sleep for everyone, but especially for us late people. “Everybody sleeps better when it ends.”

I hope he is right. I am celebrating the turning back of the clocks (I wish they would just stay this way year-round).  I joined Peter to sit in the sunny (if chilly) garden for a bit this afternoon. The story didn’t mention it, but I suspect exercise helps, too, so I’ll be practicing my tap dance routines more often.  

I’m an owl in a world mostly scheduled for larks. You’d think by now I’d be used to it, but you’d be wrong!    


I found the lark-and-owl illustration on a blog by Mitch Hinz, where he wrote about his own efforts to sleep better. 

15 comments:

DJan said...

You didn't mention the habit that larks and owls seem to be attracted to each other. I'm a lark married to an owl, and we often mention how what is the best time of day for me is the worst for him, and vice versa. :-)

BLissed-Out Grandma said...

It does seem to happen! We sometimes pass like ships in the night when his insomnia is getting him up for a while just as I'm going to bed.

Linda Myers said...

I am an owl. My lark gets up at 5 a.m. We have good, common alert time in the afternoon.

Stephen Hayes said...

I don't have too much trouble sleeping although I wake up early (five-thirty am.) Mornings are my creative time. By late afternoon the day is over for me.

Far Side of Fifty said...

I am an owl, my husband is part lark part owl. He seems to do okay with it but as he ages likes to sleep later.
I am exhausted from the time change, I slept 3 hours this afternoon...perhaps that is a third sleep:)

Daughter Number Three said...

The idea that you would be even sharper, wittier, and a better writer (one assumes) if you were allowed to operate in your preferred time is an intimidating thought!

Jeanie said...

I tend to be more of a morning person, but one of my granddaughters, 5 yr old EJ, is definitely a night owl. If left to her own schedule she would go to sleep at around 11 p.m. and get up around 10 a.m. She lives in a family of early risers and, of course, in a world where things like school start early. I think it is something she will struggle with throughout her life.
I would also prefer to have no Daylight Saving Time.

joeh said...

I am a left handed owl, the world is against me.

Chartreuse said...

I was so pleased to read this. I grew up in New England but emigrated to Australia, where I've lived in a semi-tropical climate for 40+ years. I am a confirmed owl and as you wrote, suffered all my life from trying to force my body into study and work routines that favour larks. (I was horrified to find my workmates often preferred early breakfast meetings to meeting at more civilised times.) I had long associated this with regional differences - i.e. to my having grown up in a cold northern climate before ending up in a warm southern one. But it seems the difference may be much more a matter of personal body clocks, rather than regional orientation. Either way, I had looked forward to a retirement in which I could more comfortably follow my own inclinations. But I'm married to a lark and in recent years have had to become his carer as he retreats into dementia. So I'm still forced to live by another's preferred schedule. Maybe one day!.....

Grandmother (Mary) said...

I always thought I was an owl married to a lark. John is up bright and early, awake and alert with mornings his best time. I go to bed later (11:30-12:00) and sleep later (7:30-8) and have my best time afternoons or evenings. When I worked as a nurse I preferred the evening shift. Since the article mentions an intermediate group though, I might be that since there are really late owls. I took the test at the end of the article to find out and I'll let you know. Interesting post!

Jeanie said...

I love "falling back" an hour. I really enjoy the light in the summer, but it's pretty much gone by 6:30 now anyway, so why not make it 5:30? Poor Lizzie Cosette is having trouble adjusting to the time change. She doesn't understand the clock and her tummy tells her it's time for breakfast! Like you, I am inclined to stay up later and sleep in longer. That has been one of the great joys of retirement. If I have a choppy night, no problem!

Hoping the new time works for you. This is a really interesting article and makes me feel far less guilty about those late mornings!

Indigo Roth said...

Hey Nancy! Thank you, I knew nothing about this! I'm naturally in the "mildly night-owl" mode, but settle into 11-6 or 12-7 easily enough. Thankfully, I have no trouble sleeping =) And YES about daylight saving: get rid of it! Indigo x

Ms Sparrow said...

When I retired, I looked forward to being able to sleep as late as I wanted. As a night owl, I hated getting up at 5:45 to get to work. But, I discovered that my brain had adjusted to the earlier hour. I usually wake up at that time and no matter how determined I am to go back to sleep, my brain gets busy. I hate it but have settled into a routine of taking a nap in the afternoon so I can stay up till 11:00. So far, it's been working for me.

Pauline Persing said...

You've received some interesting comments. Recently, I read a Facebook post about first and second sleeps. Seems that is a common habit...to go to sleep (no mention of when) then wake up after two or three hours, stay up for a while and do something, then go back to sleep for the rest of the night. Who knew sleep habits could be so interesting and so diverse?

I'm definitely a lark. Early to bed and early to rise...don't know that it has made me healthy, wealthy and wise.

Allyson said...

I'm pretty sure we are separated at birth...as I'm reading this at 11:03 PM. I didn't realize how good I had it when I was a housewife/small business owner working from home for about 2 years. I would work until 1 or 2 AM and sleep until 10 everyday. It was perfection and I barely even needed coffee. Now...I, too, hear the patter of little feet around 6:45 AM and it kills me. But I'm literally not even remotely sleepy until about NOW. My only hope is that when he hits about 13 and wants to sleep ALL the time, I'll get to catch up then. Here's to us owls.

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