The Myth of the Night Owl and the Dangerous Road to Adrenal Fatigue
A wake-up call and a challenge
You are not a night owl. No, you are not. No one is. There is no such thing. They do not exist. The night owl is a mythical beast.
I know this may come as a shock. You may think I’m lying or acting dramatic or being just flat-out rude. But it’s true. Being a “night owl” is not related to a personality trait, personal preference, or the “way you are wired”.
Although, “WIRED” is definitely a good adjective to describe what is really going on. See, it’s all related to cortisol, and too much cortisol often makes us feel, well, wired!
My life as a night owl
My own sleep cycle has been out of whack for years. And until recent health concerns have forced me to look at my lifestyle choices, you know what I thought? You guessed it! I told myself and everyone else that I was just a night owl. For as far back as I can remember, I have had a difficult time waking up early. And I have always enjoyed some time to myself at the end of the day while everyone else is asleep. But there came a point where this tendency turned into a something of a monster.
First, it was grad school
While I was in grad school, I would stay up WAAAYYY past anything reasonable in order to get my own work done, grade papers, and talk on the phone with my fiance. It became the norm for me to be up until 1 or 2 in the morning. At first, it felt really awful. Especially when I had an 8:00 class the next morning. But I reasoned that it was only for a couple of years, so I could handle it. On the days when I didn’t have to get up, I would often stay in the bed until after 11:00 a.m. Again, I reasoned that I needed to catch up on my sleep and that this was the healthy thing for me to do. Eventually, staying up excessively late began to feel normal. I began to enjoy the QUIET feeling of the night.
Then, it was parenting and homeschooling
Fast forward an undisclosed number of years, and I found myself in charge of homeschooling a growing number of children. Finding time to plan became increasingly difficult, and I again became friends with the night. Truthfully, I had never tried to change my predilection, thinking as most night owls do, “That’s just the way I am.” So it came quite natural for me to embrace these quiet hours of the night for planning. And then for other work. And then for my own mental sanity (or so I convinced myself). Suddenly, 1 a.m. didn’t seem all that late anymore. Bedtime frequently became 2:30 or even 3 in the morning.
What’s wrong with me?
For a while, I could manage the late hours, getting up at 8 just before my husband left for work, and drinking a couple of cups of coffee each morning. Really, I was surprised at just how healthy and energetic I felt compared to many people my age. Sure, I had a couple of slumps during the day which I affectionately nick-named “Coffee Time”. Then in the evening, my energy was back, and I would crank out more late night hours. This didn’t occur necessarily EVERY night, but it was certainly becoming a pattern.
Then one day, something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t describe it. I just felt BAD. Like in my NERVES. I couldn’t explain how I felt. My nerves sort of felt SORE. But offering this explanation convinced people I had the flu. I knew that wasn’t it. And the feeling didn’t go away. For several days, I just became more and more convinced that the myelin sheath protecting my nerves was eroding. I know that sounds crazy, and when I looked up any type of symptom such as I was experiencing, I came up empty. The only possibilities that even came close were Fibromyalgia or MS. Well, that scared me enough that I did the mature, responsible thing. I decided that couldn’t be what I had, and I poured myself another cup of coffee.
Other things began to happen with my bodily and mental state that, taken together, started to look like the profile for adrenal fatigue. I would have heart palpitations at night when I laid down to sleep. I would have shortness of breath in stressful situations. Discipline issues with the children became increasingly difficult as my patience and mental focus were both at an all-time low. And even my beloved night work sessions became less and less productive. Fat-gain and muscle-loss became issues due to my extremely low energy levels.
The connection between cortisol and adrenal fatigue
In a healthy person, the hormone cortisol is high in the morning, helping her wake up with abundant energy to accomplish the amazing things she has planned for the day. Then as the day continues, her production of cortisol will decrease gradually, until it reaches its lowest point right before bed. This helps her to get the quality rest she needs to wake up and start over again the next day. It’s a very beautifully balanced yet delicate system. And it’s easy for it to get out of whack.
The production of cortisol is reversed in the “night owl”. Because of abnormally high levels of cortisol at night, the body is unable to recover sufficiently to produce cortisol for the morning hours. So the night owl starts the day at a deficit. Then when she encounters typical stressors, she isn’t equipped to deal with them, and so the adrenal gland is forced to produce cortisol without having had enough downtime to recover. This sets up a cycle of elevated cortisol at night, low levels of cortisol in the morning, and continuing levels of stress throughout the day without sufficient cortisol for her body to call upon to manage the stressors.
Eventually, the adrenal glands call foul, and the body just quits. It has to rest. And that’s what happened to me. I began to feel horrible morning AND night and realized I was creating a diseased state in my own body. Some evenings I would crash around 8:30 in the evening, and sleep for close to 12 hours! This wake-up call (no pun intended) really opened my eyes (again, not intended) to my body’s dire state and its need for rest immediately. I began researching the path to adrenal recovery. And that is where I learned about the sleep/wake cycle know as Circadian Rhythm.
The making of a night owl
In the morning, cortisol is at its highest. In the evening, it decreases, and the brain, signaled by lower light levels, produces melatonin to help you get a good night’s sleep. Lower light levels are a big part of the proper sleep/wake cycle. So what happens when we spend our evenings in front of our computers, phones, or televisions? The bluer light from these devices is so much brighter than light bulbs and more akin to the light from the sun. So our rhythms for sleep are disrupted by our late night work sessions. Our bodies believe that it’s time for a jolt of ENERGY! So the cortisol shoots up instead of the relaxing melatonin. With the extra energy, we get so much accomplished! This, in turn, substantiates our belief that we are more productive at night. And maybe we really are–for a while. But for most of us, this doesn’t change the fact that we also have responsibilities in the morning that we are ill-equipped to handle. And eventually, perhaps imperceptibly, we even lose our edge in the evening.
From night owl to early bird
The solution is to reprogram our rhythms. This is NOT. EASY. I have been trying for several months now to maintain an earlier bedtime. So far, I have managed that for a few days, maybe a week, at most. Then I revert to late nights–because I just have to get this last thing done. But what I really have to do is to get my health back, and I am GOING to change this habit. This unhealthy rhythm.
I know that I still need alone time, but I am going to have to get it on the front end of my day. I know I will find my productivity and energy there. Eventually. For now, though the main focus has to be “early to bed”. To that end, I share with you…
My new evening routine
Winding down in the evenings is the key to signaling the body that it is time for sleep. I have to make an intentional plan that I will commit to in order to make this happen. My goal is to be in bed by 10 p.m. for the next 30 days. So these are the steps I’m taking to help this happen.
- All children in their rooms by 8:30.
They, of course, have different bedtimes, but the time from 8:30 to 10 now belongs to me and my husband. (But mostly me, for now.
) This going to be a struggle, and take more advance planning than I have done, especially on nights we have Jiu-jitsu. I will have to have dinner all ready to go before I leave so we can come home, eat, clean up, and get the kids to their rooms. On nights where we are out or at a friends house, I will perhaps relax this rule. But I still need to make sure we’re home by 9:30 so we can get everyone ready for bed and tucked in before we hit the sack.
- No screens after 9:00 p.m.
Experts say that you need 30 minutes or so of screen-free time before bed to signal your brain to produce melatonin. That may be true, but I know this about myself. I had better give myself an hour or more to disengage. It’s been interesting to discover on evenings when I didn’t use the computer at all, I was getting tired by 9:30. Hmmm, that doesn’t sound much like night owl patterns, does it? However, when I do use the computer, I get a jolt of energy that keeps me from even feeling tired until 11:30 or so. I’m really going to try to limit the screen time altogether, but if I need to look something up or send an email, I will be done by 9:00.
- Self-care time.
I’ve created for myself a menu of relaxing items and activities that I can use during my self-care time. I have another BIG list that includes all my self-care choices. I call it my Energy Menu. And at some future point, I will make the list a free PDF for you. But for the evening, I narrow that list down to the choices that will relax me enough such that I will want to go to bed. Here’s the evening list, in case you night owls would like to try some of these ideas yourself.
- Sleepytime Tea or some other non-caffeinated tea. Wine is fine at dinner, but not recommended before bed for good sleep.
- Relaxing music. Classical can be good, but it must be relaxing classical.
- Warm bath. Add some Epsom salts and some essential oils for promoting relaxation such as lavender, bergamot, or chamomile.
- Complete facial. If you don’t have time for a bath, taking the time to really care for your facial skin can be super relaxing.
- Mani/Pedi. Shape and file, but save the nail polish for the next day. Not only is it not great to inhale strong chemicals right before bed, but you also don’t want to mess up your polish by climbing into bed right after.
- Light reading. Stephen King may not be the most relaxing choice, but reading light fiction, inspiration, or even better, the scriptures, before bed can lead to a calmer brain-wave function which can significantly improve the quality of sleep.
- Gratitude journaling. Reflecting positively on your day can reduce stress, which is HUGE for promoting better sleep.
- Time with my husband. My husband understands my need for taking care of myself, but I also understand that quality time with him is part of what I need to help me heal. I need his support and encouragement, and that connection is just so vital to our relationship.
- Prayer time. I need to remember that my Father is in complete control of all the things that bring me stress. I need to lay down all my cares, knowing that He is merciful and accepts all my flawed efforts to make my life the best it can be. This prayer time, however brief, helps me to let go and breathe. Deep breathing is a really important part of quality sleep. I know that when I hold on to all the burdens, I don’t breath very deeply, and I wake up exhausted like I worked all through the night.
Join me in a challenge, won’t you?
Have you believed the night owl myth? Are you struggling with adrenal fatigue? Would you like to join me on a journey to reclaim our health? If so, sign up to be a part of my Adrenal Recovery Challenge. Starting next Monday, and for the next 8 Mondays, I will be writing an article about one major change I am trying to implement for the week. If you subscribe, I will also be sending you an email with my progress, a new challenge for the week, some positive thoughts to help manage stress, and a few extra tips on how you can begin to reclaim your health. I will also host a private Facebook group where you can share your stories, ask for help, and share tips or encouragement with each other as we journey on towards renewed energy and vibrant health!