Deep in the labyrinth of your DNA, a small collection of genes exerts a powerful influence on whether you are a morning or an evening person. Also shaping your inherent tendency toward morning-ness or evening-ness are a number of other influences — hormones, sunlight, age, and even where on the planet you live.
If you’re naturally inclined to be more active and productive at night, can you override these biological and environmental influences? Can you intentionally change yourself into a morning person? It won’t be easy — and it might not be permanent — but the answer seems to be yes.
What exactly is a chronotype?
Your natural tendency to be more of a morning person or night person is sometimes called your chronotype. Sometimes people refer to chronotypes in animal terms — early birds, night owls, wolves, or dolphins — but there is no real scientific connection between these labels and human sleep phases.
Whether you are raring to go at first light or you’re at your peak in the wee small hours is largely a matter of genetics, but it is possible to change your sleeping and waking cycles — even if the changes don’t last a lifetime.
What can you do to change your chronotype?
If the demands of your job, your school schedule, your family’s needs, or your personal goals require you to be more active and productive during morning hours, you may be able to alter your sleep and wake cycles. Here are a few doctor-recommended tips for aligning your sleep schedule with your current needs:
Gradually change your bedtime
Whether you’re a lark or an owl, a good night’s sleep is important for your health. Sleep experts recommend that you start by going to sleep anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours earlier each night. Over a period of weeks, move your nighttime routine earlier and earlier until your bedtime allows you to get the requisite amount of sleep before your alarm goes off and the day begins.
Let lighting help you realign your body’s clock
Your body has an inner clock that sets your circadian rhythms. That clock is highly sensitive to changes in light. In fact, your body is capable of releasing the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin in response to sunset-colored light.
Dawn-like blue light, by contrast, stimulates a wake-up response in your body. You can use this light sensitivity to your benefit. Limit your exposure to devices that emit blue light (such as phones and tablets) close to bedtime, and opt for nightlights and bedside lamps with amber or red bulbs that mimic sleepy-time sunset colors.
Develop a soothing nighttime routine
Going to sleep isn’t as easy as switching off the lights. If you’re trying to override a lifelong habit of nighttime activity, it may help to create routines that send a bedtime signal to your brain. Gentle stretches, meditation, deep breathing, aromatherapy, reading books, journaling, and other calming rituals may help you develop a pleasant and relaxing nighttime routine that encourages an earlier start to your sleep cycle.
Track the positive impacts
As your sleep cycle begins to transition, you may notice changes to your energy levels, productivity, or mood. Make a note of these changes as you experience them, because reviewing the positive impacts may help you stay motivated on days when you’re feeling a bit sleepy or disoriented.
Reward yourself for reaching incremental targets
Studies show that when people pursue long-term goals, they’re more likely to stay motivated if they recognize smaller accomplishments along the way. As you plan your strategy for becoming more of morning person, think about ways to reward yourself when you do hard things.
You know the experiences and indulgences that matter most to you: Use your daily or weekly achievements to micro-motivate yourself.
Keep an eye on your larger, more aspirational goals
If prolonged daytime sleepiness or the slowness of change occasionally discourage you, it may help to remind yourself why you began this journey. If the practical reason you wanted to become a morning person (to obtain a degree, increase your income, get fit, build a business) is not enough of a motivator, you may benefit from examining what behavioral researchers call “superordinate goals.”
Thinking or writing about relationships, personal values, hopes, aspirations, and the characteristics of your own identity can empower you to overcome difficulties and obstacles when other methods fail.
Don’t let eating habits undermine your progress
A 2020 analysis of research on diet patterns and chronotype revealed that evening people tend to eat their dinner meal much later in the day than morning people do. The studies also showed that evening people, on the whole, tend to skip breakfast, eat fewer vegetables, and consume more caffeine and alcohol than morning types.
If your goal is to fall asleep earlier and wake up earlier, you may want to adapt your eating habits so that they promote better sleep. Sleep researchers recommend that you limit caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime and eat your largest meal earlier in the day.
Incorporate exercise into your day
Studies show that you can use exercise to move your sleep phase earlier in the evening. In a recent study that tracked the exercise patterns and sleep cycles of 52 participants, people with an evening chronotype could advance their sleep cycle to an earlier time of day by exercising either in the morning or in the evening.
The same study indicates that once you’ve shifted to a more morning-oriented sleep cycle, you should exercise early in the day to preserve your new sleeping pattern.
Give it time
Becoming a morning person literally won’t happen overnight. The more entrained your sleep patterns are, the longer it may take to revamp them. While it’s perfectly fine to let yourself hit the snooze button on a weekend morning or when you’re on vacation, try to honor your new schedule as much of the time as possible. In the long run, that consistency will deliver better results.
Enlist the experts
If you’re not getting the results you need, consider working with a specialist at a sleep center near you. If your sleep is disrupted, you’re having insomnia, or you want to work toward a different sleep schedule, a sleep study could help you better understand your body’s needs and patterns. You may want to begin by consulting a primary care physician to find out whether a medical condition could be contributing to any sleep difficulties you’re having.
Does your chronotype remain the same throughout your life?
For many people, waking and sleeping cycles shift more than once in a lifetime. Here’s what science tells us about the biological and environmental causes of becoming a morning or night person.
One big alteration in your chronotype typically occurs during the teen years. For teenagers, the onset of puberty marks a big shift toward a later sleep phase preference that lasts at least five years.
Research also indicates that the hormonal changes of pregnancy often move women to an earlier chronotype, at least during the first two trimesters. Women in a 2019 study reverted to their original sleep patterns toward the end of the pregnancy.
A large Brazilian study involving 14,650 volunteers found that women tend to be more morning-oriented early in life, becoming more evening-oriented after the age of 45, as the amount of estrogen in the body decreases. Most men in the study were late risers beginning at puberty. Many of the men became the up-at-dawn type with hormonal changes later in life.
Having a stroke can also change whether you’re a morning person or a night person. One 2014 pilot study indicated that both the severity of the stroke and the area of the brain affected could cause a significant change in chronotype. For people in this study, the changes lasted for at least three months after the stroke occurred.
Seasonal changes can also influence how early you rise and how late you sleep. Daylight, one of the most powerful influences on your internal circadian rhythm, changes with the seasons. Researchers think people have varying levels of sensitivity to changing seasons.
Those who are highly sensitive to seasonal shifts may experience changes in their chronotype that enable them to adapt their sleep cycles and make the most of the daylight hours.
Even the latitude of your home influences your circadian rhythms. Wide-ranging studies have shown that evening-ness is more common in places where the sunset occurs later in the day, and that people tend to be more morning-oriented in geographies closer to the equator.
If trying to become a morning person doesn’t work for you…
Welcome to the era of chronotype diversity. In some workplaces, new management practices aim to create teams that recognize the contributions of people with differing chronotypes. These teams use “energetic asynchrony” to build flexible schedules so early birds and night owls can collaborate to meet business goals. As remote work, flex scheduling, and virtual classrooms become more common, the morning imperative may begin to shrink in significance.
The bottom line
If your health, job, family, education, or personal goals require you to be an early riser, it’s possible to make a gradual change in your natural sleeping tendencies. It may take time to make the change, and you may revert to your genetically-set chronotype at some point in your life, but there are steps you can take to become more of a morning person now.
Diet and exercise can help you adjust your sleep schedule. New nighttime routines and an earlier bedtime will make a difference, and you may find that changing the lighting in your sleeping environment also helps. Once you begin rising earlier, keep track of any positive effects, reward yourself often, and remind yourself of your overall objectives if the going gets tough along the way.
Changing your chronotype is a challenge, and you may want to seek help from sleep experts if these strategies don’t work for you. If you still find that you don’t bound out of bed, alert and jubilant at the crack of dawn, know that chronotype diversity is on the rise — whether you are ready to rise or not.
Originally published on Healthline.
Stay up to date or catch-up on all our podcasts with Arianna Huffington here.