Why many people find it unhealthy to try to be a “morning person”
I am a neurobiology graduate student, and what got me started on this path was a lecture on sleep that I attended as a sleep-deprived 14-year-old, enrolled at a highly competitive high school and trying to figure out how I could stop feeling so exhausted.
In the decade or so since, I’ve encountered a lot of fascinating research about the circadian rhythm — the ~24-hour cycle in behavior and biology, regulating things like sleeping and waking. And in the neuroscience world it is well established that we can’t choose whether or not we are morning people.
It turns out that everyone has a “chronotype” — the trait which describes what time they naturally wake up or go to sleep, what time of day they are more productive or happiest, and even most moral. And there is a great deal of diversity between individuals and across a lifespan: Some people have morning chronotypes, some have evening, and we often have different chronotypes at different ages (as we age, we typically shift earlier) or during periods of ill health. A person’s chronotype is partially determined by genetics, partially by the social environment, and partially by behavior — so it’s not set in stone, but it also mostly isn’t up to you.
Forcing yourself to behave outside of your chronotype (ex. trying to shift when you go to sleep and wake up; trying to eat when you aren’t hungry; trying to exercise when your body isn’t ready; etc…) can cause negative impacts to your physical and mental health. The sleep shifts have been particularly well studied, and have been linked to heart disease, diabetes, depression, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Those of us who find it difficult and unpleasant to wake up early are not lazy or doomed to be unsuccessful— similarly, those who find it difficult to stay up late are not uncommitted or lacking passion or self-sacrifice. We need to step away from those harmful stereotypes.
The way forward is to respect and embrace our own rhythms and find the healthiest sleep habits for ourselves.
- The Munich Chronotype Questionnaire from the Max Planck Institute
- A great article from the NYT on “Everyday jetlag” experienced by people with “delayed sleep phase” (i.e. a strong evening chronotype)
- A few other articles on this topic that I’ve posted in the past, which are really *enlightening* (har har har) about how fascinating and complex circadian rhythm health is