How Can a Night Owl Sleep Better?

12 Ways to Improve Your Sleep

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Night owls may have insomnia with difficulty falling asleep and sleep better with morning sunlight
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Night owls may have a condition called delayed sleep phase syndrome and may be at higher risk for serious health consequences and social impacts. What causes the tendency to be a night owl? How might night owls learn to sleep better through simple behavioral changes? Discover ways to avoid poor sleep if you desire staying up late.

What Is a Night Owl?

First, it is important to understand how someone with a night owl tendency is defined.

It is helpful to understand a process that contributes to normal sleep: the circadian rhythm.

When problematic, being a night owl is considered a circadian rhythm disorder. The circadian rhythm synchronizes processes within the body—including the propensity for sleep and wakefulness as well as hormonal fluctuations and even body temperature. Night owls have a delay in timing compared to when darkness occurs.

By definition, a night owl typically falls asleep two to three hours (or more) later compared to the average person. This often means falling asleep after midnight and a tendency of falling asleep closer to 1 to 2 a.m. is typical. In some cases, it can be delayed even further. In extreme conditions a night owl might fall asleep closer to sunrise. There can be a fair bit of variability in this timing, and the tendency may fall across a spectrum.

Beyond wanting to fall asleep later, and getting a second wind of productivity late into the evening, night owls also have difficulty getting up earlier in the morning.

Their sleep need is similar to others, with adults requiring seven to nine hours of sleep to feel rested.

If the onset of sleep is late, the desire to wake will be delayed later as well. For someone who falls asleep at 2 a.m., wake time may not come until 10 a.m. or later. In some cases, an affected night owl may sleep into the early afternoon.

The symptoms of delayed sleep phase syndrome may include:

It is believed that night owls have a genetic tendency toward their condition. Delayed sleep phase syndrome affects about 10 percent of the population. It often begins in the teenage years, but it may persist throughout life. This can have important consequences on health, social and occupational functioning, and well-being.

Consequences

Unfortunately, there can be serious consequences to being a night owl. Some of these reflect a society that may not recognize the condition for what it is and fail to provide accommodation. Health may also be undermined by the insidious effects of sleep deprivation.

There are some scary statistics regarding the effects of being a night owl. Recent research supports the association between being a night owl and having a 10 percent increased risk of death. There is also a higher incidence of other health problems, including:

  • Weight gain due to metabolic impacts
  • Cardiovascular risk (including heart attacks)
  • Diabetes
  • Psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, etc.)
  • Alcohol or drug abuse

    These health impacts may only become apparent over a prolonged period of time. Many may be linked to the effects of sleep deprivation, the result of the natural delay in sleep onset and compulsory early awakenings.

    Social impacts, in contrast, may become evident more quickly. Someone with a night owl tendency may be accused of being “lazy.” This is especially common among teenagers who develop the condition.

    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.

    There can also be impacts on relationships. A partner may not recognize the reason for difficulty getting to sleep, or waking early, and cast aspersions. This can lead to tension and further problems.

    How to Sleep Better

    In order to resolve insomnia, and to avoid the effects of sleep deprivation, there are some simple behavioral changes that may be helpful. In some cases, participation in a formal cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) program may be helpful. This therapy may be available via a psychologist, workshop, online course, books, or even apps.

    To get started on making some improvements, consider these suggestions.

    1. Get up at the same time every day, including on weekends.
    2. Set an alarm and put it across the room, forcing you to get out of bed to turn it off, and don’t come back to bed. Never use the snooze button.
    3. Get 15-30 minutes of sunlight immediately upon awakening (or at sunrise).
    4. In the winter months, if it is still dark when you need to wake, consider using a light box.
    5. Go to bed when you feel sleepy, even if this means delaying your bedtime to match when you naturally feel sleepy.
    6. If you are not meeting your sleep needs, gradually adjust the bedtime earlier in 15-minute increments weekly to increase your total sleep time.
    7. Do not lie awake in the 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.
    8. Preserve the bedroom as a sleep sanctuary, reserving it as a space solely for sleep and sex.
    9. Avoid screen light in the one to two hours before your desired bedtime.
    10. Spend the last hour before bedtime relaxing and unwinding: reading, listening to quiet music, or watching a familiar movie.
    11. Minimize naps during the day to improve your sleep at night.
    12. Do not drink caffeine or alcohol in the four to six hours prior to going to sleep.

    The key recommendation for night owls to fall asleep earlier, and wake easier, is to observe a fixed wake time and get morning sunlight every day upon awakening and to go to bed when feeling sleepy.

    In general, sleeping pills and alcohol use should be avoided. These are often ineffective, and as a result, doses may escalate to get even a modest effect. This can increase the risks for overdose and potentially death.

    A Word From Verywell

    If sleep has become very destabilized, with the desire to sleep seeming to drift across the 24-hour period, this may represent a problem called non-24 circadian disorder. Consultation with a board-certified sleep physician may help to identify the problem.

    Tracking with sleep logs or actigraphy may prove helpful. In some cases, melatonin may be needed to anchor the circadian rhythm. Other medications such as Hetlioz (tasimelteon) may be useful in select populations, such as among the blind.

    Night owls should always allow sufficient time to meet their sleep needs. In some cases, professional choices and delayed school start times may provide additional relief.

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