“When I try to analyze my sleep problems,” she wrote, “I feel I’m possibly confusing being a nocturnal person with insomnia. I’ve always wanted to stay up late. I feel like I’m about 3 hours behind the rest of the world. No matter how tired I am in the evening, I still can’t go to sleep till early in the morning!
“Sometimes just knowing that I have to get up earlier than usual for a meeting or having to catch an early flight makes me crazy and not able to sleep. Then I try to regain what I lost in sleep the following morning. On some days I don’t get in to my office until 1 p.m.!” Other than take sleeping pills, she wanted to know, what could she do that would help her get to sleep at a reasonable hour?
An Inherited Trait
It’s no fun being a night owl when you have to march to the beat of a corporate clock. Getting up at 7 a.m. may be easy for those who fall asleep by midnight, but it’s much harder if you can’t fall asleep till 3. You’re a zombie at early morning meetings, spilling coffee and forgetting papers and keys, and then slogging through the day with what feels like a whopping hangover.
This inclination to want to go to sleep and get up late is not a matter of choice; one in 10 people are genetically programmed to experience what doctors call Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder, or DSPD. The body clock simply runs on a later schedule in people with DSPD. Here are a couple ways to shift your biological rhythms so that you feel like going to sleep earlier.
Bright Light Therapy
One is to expose yourself to bright light for a few hours right after you wake up, every day. Sunlight works best—but taking a walk or sitting by a window may not be in the cards if you have to get yourself ready for work or get children off to school.
Another option is to use a light box. While sitting beside a light box for two hours straight may not fit into your early morning routine, time with the light box can be interspersed with taking showers, getting dressed, making breakfast, and other early morning activities. The idea is to spend as much time by the light box as possible in the first few hours after waking up.
The other way to shift your biological rhythms forward is to use melatonin supplements. But taking melatonin according to the instructions on the label—an hour before bedtime—is not going to help. To get a sizeable phase-shifting effect, you have to take it around dinnertime. Specifically, 3 mg of melatonin taken seven hours before the time you actually fall asleep will give you the biggest bang for the buck, according to Charmane Eastman, director of the Biological Rhythms Research Lab at Rush University Medical Center, whom I interviewed last year. As is true of bright light, melatonin has to be used daily to keep your body clock from shifting back to its natural cadence.
A combination of bright light and melatonin supplements works even better than either therapy alone. Not being a night owl myself, I can’t speak from personal experience here. But research shows these therapies to be effective for a majority of night owls wanting to sleep more “normal” hours.
If you’re a night owl, does your work allow you to sleep in late, or have you had to adjust your sleep schedule to start work early? How have you done it?