No Shame for Extreme Night Owls

Author of An Occupational Therapist’s Guide to Sleep and Sleep Problems, Andrew Green is an occupational therapist specialising in sleep disorders. In a bid to clear the air about the myths that surround the early bird and nightowl stereotypes,  Andrew gently introduces the sleep disorders that are the root of the stereotypes that haunt those of us who just aren’t very good at sticking to ‘normal’ sleeping hours, if such a thing exists.

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In 1735, Benjamin Franklin made known the saying ‘Early to bed, early to rise makes man healthy, wealthy and wise’. Over two centuries later it turns out that the opposite may be nearer the truth. By comparing health and socioeconomic data relating to ‘owls’ and ‘larks’, Gale and Martyn (1998) found no evidence that early rising is actually more beneficial, and concluded that early bedtimes and rising times are not linked with ‘health, socioeconomic, or cognitive advantage [and] if anything, owls were wealthier than larks’ (p.1677). It is possible that Franklin learned in his long life that the earlier saying was inaccurate since the following is also attributed to him, presumably in his later years: ‘I wake up every morning at nine and grab for the morning paper. Then I look at the obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up’.

In any case, the reality is that people are different and the tendency towards being an owl or a lark is inherited. For most people it is just a tendency – part of natural variation that can be accommodated in normal lifestyles, but at the extremes are circadian rhythm disorders. Circadian rhythms are the natural cycles that determine the timing of numerous body functions, including the sleep-wake cycle. When someone’s rhythm is advanced – when they are an ‘extreme lark’ – they tend to wake earlier and go to bed earlier than the norm; it is a very rare condition and Schrader et al. (1993) found no cases of advanced sleep phase disorder in a sample of 10,000 Norwegian adults. However, the same study found 17 individuals who met diagnostic criteria for delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) – or who were ‘extreme owls’: it is therefore still an uncommon condition although the prevalence in adolescents and young adults may be as high as 10% (Wilson and Nutt 2013).

To have DSPS means that a person is unable to sleep until two hours, or longer, after a more conventional bedtime and naturally tends to wake correspondingly later. It might not seem much but is extremely disruptive to life. Someone with DSPS may not know they have it and think they have insomnia, perhaps going to bed at 11 p.m. in the hope of having eight hours of sleep and not sleeping until 2 or 3 a.m. However, they will still need to get up at 7 a.m. for work or school and have to get through the day. Whereas most people can manage after one short night, perhaps because of an early start for a journey, having DSPS is like having to get up at 4 a.m. every day, having gone to bed at 10 or 11 p.m., and then feeling sleepy every afternoon.

Individuals with DSPS complain that it is difficult to get to work reliably in the morning and that employers, and others, do not understand that they are not just being lazy. Some people are very embarrassed by staying in bed for half the morning. Others are able to adapt to some extent; for example, a research student might be able to work in the library during the night, arrange meetings in the afternoon and still have time to meet friends in the evening. The experience of DSPS has been investigated by Wilhelmsen-Langeland et al. (2012) in a qualitative study involving nine young people (age 16–23) in Norway. Participants talked about the difficulty of staying awake at school, and conflicts with others through being late when meeting, or unavailable to help with chores, for example, during the day, but the failure of others to understand was a key observation. Other people might suggest that they could just go to bed earlier – as if they could just try harder to sleep ahead of their biological preference.

Delayed sleep phase syndrome is a disruption of activity cycles and could be considered a disorder of occupation; it should be of interest to occupational therapists. Medical management could involve use of melatonin at night to encourage earlier sleep (supplementing naturally produced melatonin) and bright light (daylight or full spectrum artificial light that mimics natural light) on rising in the morning in order to help ‘reset the body clock’. In addition to these, chronotherapy involves going to bed successively later, a strategy that seems counter-intuitive, until the desired hours of sleep are reached; it is easier to adjust the timing of sleep by lengthening the day – in the same way that is easier to adjust to jet lag when flying east to west. It is then important to consider how the person keeps to more conventional hours.

In many respects maintaining more regular hours is like following advice for managing insomnia: keeping a consistent rising time (essential) – and seeing daylight on waking; avoiding daytime sleep that might delay night time sleep; doing regular exercise and having regular activity; having a clear winding down routine. In winding down it is preferable not only to avoid the mental or emotional stimulation that might accompany use of a computer late at night (and the temptation to play ‘just one more game’, for example) but also to avoid the blue light that is emitted by computer screens and televisions, which can suppress the production of melatonin.

Despite all such effort, however, it is likely that the individual is always going to be later than average and well-advised to avoid work that involves early starts. Finally, extreme owls might remember that there is no need for shame in rising late, which they cannot help. As Gale and Martyn put it, ‘there is no justification for early risers to affect moral superiority’ (p.1677).

References
 Gale, C. and Martyn, C. (1998) ‘Larks an owls and health, wealth, and wisdom.’ British Medical Journal 317, 1675–1677.
 Schrader, H., Bovim, G. and Sand, T. (1993) ‘The prevalence of delayed and advanced sleep phase syndromes.’ Journal of Sleep Research 2, 1, 51–55.
 Wilhelmsen-Langeland, A., Dundas, I., West Saxvig, I., Pallesen, S., Nordhus, I.-H. and Bjorvatn, B. (2012) ‘Psychosocial challenges related to delayed sleep phase disorder.’ The Open Sleep Journal 2012, 5, 51–58.
 Wilson, S. and Nutt, D. (2013) Sleep Disorders, 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Andrew Green trained in occupational therapy in York and is now a specialist occupational therapist in North Bristol NHS Trust’s sleep disorders service at the Rosa Burden Centre. Learn more about his book An Occupational Therapist’s Guide to Sleep and Sleep Problems here.

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