Can’t wake up early? Your genes may be to blame

Can’t wake up early? Your genes may be to blame

Whether it means waking at dawn or just hitting the hay in the wee hours of the morning, your genetically determined circadian rhythms might be to blame for your waking and sleeping habits.

And while it may not be easy or even possible to change these tendencies, several studies show that both night owls and early birds have their perks.

According to Dr. Muhammad Ikramuddin, a sleep specialist with Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill., the tendency for an individual to be a morning person, or lark, versus an evening person, or owl, depends on their chronotype.

One’s chronotype, as Dr. Ikramuddin explains, is their unique genetic makeup that determines what times of day they feel most energetic. An individual’s natural circadian rhythm, or the internal clock that tells them when to wake and when to sleep, is the basis of measurement for determining their chronotype.

The average circadian cycle is slightly longer than 24 hours but varies between individuals. The longer one’s circadian cycle lasts, the later they will tend to stay up at night and sleep in during the day. Individuals with shorter circadian cycles, on the other hand, go to bed and wake up much earlier. These cycles are largely based on genetics and can be difficult to change.

Studies have shown that morning people tend to be happier, live longer, have stronger self-direction and achieve better grades in school than night owls. This may be due to the fact that these individuals are fully focused early in the day when they are more likely to be around others, making important decisions or attending or studying for a class, while night owls struggle to stay awake and focus during these same times.

A study conducted by Northwestern University found that early risers also had a significantly lower body mass index (BMI) than their counterparts. Earlier and more prolonged sunlight and a higher aptitude to exercise after waking tends to lead to better overall health in these individuals. This can also be attributed to morning people’s lower tendency to engage in substance abuse.

But late risers need not force a change in their lifestyles just yet. Research shows that functioning as a night owl has its own benefits.

A study in Learning and Individual Differences found that individuals with longer chronotypes tend to have better memories, processing speeds and cognitive abilities, while others found late risers to be more outgoing and creative.

This balance of benefits between early birds and night owls may be for the best, and individuals are encouraged to embrace their natural tendencies when possible.

“Genetic and environmental interaction determines whether someone is a morning or evening person,” Dr. Ikramuddin says. “While a change in environmental factors such as lighting, meal times and work or school schedules may influence some change in a minority of individuals, the majority will remain true to their natural tendencies.”

While it is true that much of the world functions on a morning-centric schedule, hope for night owls still remains. The popularity of flexible scheduling and working remotely continue to grow across numerous fields, and developments in technology, such as daylight lamps, can greatly aid evening types in waking up early when necessary.

Regardless of chronotype, the best way to stay productive and capitalize on your individual strengths hinges on finding a schedule and sticking to it. “There may be drawbacks if a sleep schedule is not maintained,” says Dr. Ikramuddin. “For an overall good outcome, sleep on time and keep consistent as much as possible, including weekends.”

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About the Author

Katie Helander
Katie Helander

Katie Helander, health enews contributor, is a public affairs and marketing intern for Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill. She is currently pursuing her BA in public relations and minors in international communication and Spanish at Illinois State University, where she also serves as the Chapter President of the Public Relations Student Society of America. In her free time, Katie enjoys theatre, traveling, working out, and learning new things. After graduation, she plans to pursue a career in international relations or with a major public relations agency.