How a Night Owl Can Sleep Better

Practical Tips for Overcoming Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder

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Night owls may simply be in the habit of staying up late. Others may have a condition called delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD) that places them at increased risk of adverse health consequences and a diminished quality of life.

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Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

What Is DSPD?

To better understand DSPD, also known as delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, it helps to understand a process that contributes to normal sleep, called the circadian rhythm.

The circadian rhythm synchronizes processes within the body—including the propensity for sleep and wakefulness. Being a chronic night owl is considered a circadian rhythm disorder insofar as there is a delay in the timing of sleep compared to when darkness occurs.

By definition, DSPD occurs when a person falls asleep two to three hours (or more) later than the average person. This often means falling asleep after midnight and sometimes closer to 1:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. In some cases, it can be delayed even further.

Besides falling asleep later, people with DSPD will typically get a "second wind" of productivity late in the evening and have difficulty getting up in the morning.

Symptoms

The sleep needs of a night owl are no different than anyone else, and they will often develop sleep deprivation if they don't get the 7 to 8 hours of sleep recommended for most adults and the 7 to 9 hours recommended for teens.

To compensate, some night owls may sleep well into the early afternoon. Even so, the risk of sleep deprivation is high as lost hours of sleep accumulate and lead to a sleep debt (also known as a sleep deficit). This is when the symptoms of DSPD become most apparent.

Symptoms of DSPD include:

In extreme cases, increased pain sensitivity and hallucinations may occur.

Complications

There can be serious consequences to being a night owl. Recent research suggests that chronic DSPD increases the risk of death by around 10%.

People with chronic sleep deprivation also have a higher incidence of other health problems, including:

  • Weight gain
  • Cardiovascular disease (including heart attacks)
  • Diabetes
  • Psychiatric disorders (including anxiety and depression)
  • Alcohol or drug abuse

There are also social consequences to DSPD. Someone with a night owl tendency may be accused of being “lazy” or "lacking initiative." This is especially common among teenagers who are chronically sleep-deprived.

Difficulty waking up on time may lead to being chronically tardy to school or work. There may be increased absenteeism. When trying to be productive during the early morning hours, problems with concentration, attention, and focus may undermine efforts.

Causes

DSPD is thought to affect up to 9% of the population. It often starts in the teen years and may persist throughout a person's life.

Some studies suggest that night owls may have a genetic tendency toward DSPD. This is evidence in part by the fact that DSPD often runs in families.

Early studies suggest that families with DPSD carry a mutation of the CRY1 gene that helps regulate the circadian rhythm.

Others believe that DPSD is a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and psychological factors. Anxiety and depression, for example, can promote insomnia, while the sleep behavior of parents are often passed down to the kids.

Do All Night Owls Have DSPD?

Not everyone who is a night owl consider DSPD a disorder. Many night owls, either due to adaptation to their habits or a decreased need for sleep, can function normally despite the abnormal sleep schedule.

How to Sleep Better

In order to resolve insomnia and avoid the effects of sleep deprivation, some simple behavioral modifications may be needed. To get started, consider participating in a cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) program available through a psychologist, online course, or even certain apps.

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How to Get a Better Night of Sleep

To help overcome DSPD and chronic sleep deprivation, consider these simple suggestions:

  1. Minimize naps during the day to improve your sleep at night.
  2. Do not drink caffeine or alcohol 4 to 6 hours before going to sleep.
  3. Avoid screen light in the one to two hours before your desired bedtime.
  4. Spend the last hour before bedtime relaxing and unwinding: reading, listening to quiet music, or watching a familiar movie.
  5. Preserve the bedroom as a sleep sanctuary, reserving it as a space solely for sleep and sex.
  6. Set an alarm clock and put it across the room so you have to get up to turn it off.
  7. Go to bed when you feel sleepy, even if this means delaying your bedtime to match when you naturally feel sleepy.
  8. Do not lie awake in bed at night. If it takes more than 15 minutes to fall asleep, get up and do something relaxing and come back to bed when you are feeling more sleepy.
  9. Get up at the same time every day, including weekends.
  10. Get 15 to 30 minutes of sunlight immediately upon awakening or at sunrise.
  11. In the winter months, consider using a lightbox if it is dark in the morning.
  12. If you are not meeting your sleep needs, gradually adjust the bedtime earlier in 15-minute increments weekly to increase your total sleep time.

The key goal to overcoming DSPD is improving your sleep hygiene. This includes avoiding stimulation before bedtime and keeping to a fixed sleep-wake schedule that provides you no less than 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night.

In general, sleeping pills and alcohol should be avoided. These are often ineffective and may lead to dependence. Moreover, they may end disrupting your sleep patterns as they become less and less effective.

A Word From Verywell

If sleep has become seriously destabilized, you may benefit from a consultation with a board-certified sleep physician. Your primary care provider should be able to provide you with a reference.

In the end, sleep disorders can be caused by one or a multitude of things. By working with a sleep physician, you can undergo tests to determine the underlying cause (or causes) of your symptoms and access the appropriate treatment.

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Article Sources
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