Night Owls vs. Early Risers: Genetics And Different Brain Anatomy

If you’re a natural early riser and don’t require an alarm clock, you probably get a lot done before noon, and are notably productive early in the day and tend to wind down in the afternoon. On the other hand, you might be a late sleeper who really doesn’t become productive. Most of us fall in the middle of these two extremes, depending upon what is known as your chronotype, which dictates your predisposition to the timing of daily activity and rest.

Early risers are sometimes called “larks”, whereas at the other extreme is the domain of the “night owl”. The remainder fall somewhere in the middle, but at either end, conforming to conventional clocks and schedules can be a bit troublesome.

There is a lot of genetic and biological force which determines just exactly when we tend to rise and head off to bed. Chronotypes are associated with differing lifestyles, mood, cognitive function, health problems, career choices, and even sleep disorders.

Research from the Aachen University in Germany suggests that there are different physical characteristics in brain anatomy, after conducting brain scans of early risers, extreme night owls, and those who fall in the broader range. After observing 59 individuals with differing chronotypes, the group was divided into sub groups of 16 early risers, 20 intermediates, and 23 night owls.

Night owls showed reduced amounts of pliable white matter, which is fatty tissue that facilitates communication between nerve cells. The lack of integrity of white matter in the brain has been linked to reduced cognitive function, and the cause of the reduced integrity of white matter in night owls is not firmly understood.

One theory is that this reduction in white matter integrity constantly interferes with the schedules of day to day life,  such as early morning starting times, especially where work and school is concerned. 

Night Owls often Limited By Requirements Of Workplace And School Schedule

The end result is that night owls are often constantly sleep deprived because they can’t get the required minimum 8-9 hours of restorative sleep that they need to operate at peak performance.

In fact, the symptoms are virtually identical to those imposed by jet lag: difficulty focusing, physical pain, feeling like you are in a fog, fatigue, and daytime sleepiness. Night owls are also at higher risk for depression, tobacco and alcohol use, binge eating, and less healthy diets that people with intermediate sleep patterns.

By definition, a night owl, on average, falls asleep two to three hours later than the average person. This usually means falling asleep well beyond midnight with sleep induction taking longer, and a tendency to fall asleep closer to 1-2 AM is not unusual. In some cases, it can be delayed even later. In extreme circumstances, a night owl might fall very close to sunrise. The tendencies fall across a spectrum, and work and school schedules might control weekday rise times, but often there is a tremendous and hazardous sleep deficit by the end of week.

Beyond wanting to fall asleep later, and getting a second wind of productivity late into the evening, night owls also have difficulty getting up earlier in the morning. Their sleep need is similar to others, with adults requiring seven to nine hours of sleep to feel rested.

If the onset of sleep is late, the desire to wake will be delayed later as well. For someone who falls asleep at 2 a.m., wake time may not come until 10 a.m. or later. In some cases, an affected night owl may sleep into the early afternoon.

The good news is that night owls are more productive overall than early risers, have more stamina throughout the entire span of a typical day, have better reasoning skills, and tend to be more financially and professionally successful that folks who hit the hay early and wake up early.

The German study is the first of its kind, showing that anatomical differences between people having different sleep tendencies. Other scientists have discovered something called an “alarm clock gene” that alerts the body and activates its biological clock, ending the sleep period of a given day. Understanding the nature of this gene is essential to explaining circadian rhythms and sleep patterns in humans.

Other studies demonstrate genetic links between several components of the sleep mechanism, including bedtime and waking preferences, circadian schedules, and brain metabolism between night owls, early risers, and those in-between. The area of the brain regulating these functions is the same are that regulates mood, which might explain the reason night owls are more exposed to depressions.

Yet another gene has been shown to influence the circadian rhythm and clock by shifting a particular individuals sleep-wake cycle up to 60 minutes within a 24 hour period. Since genetic forces play such a key role in our sleep rhythms, how to individuals at the extreme end of the spectrum adapt to the demands of a standardized clock, the 9-5 work model, and still maintain a healthy sleep hygiene regime?

It may be that individuals who are night owls might need to engage in better sleep hygiene practices, make sure they are getting enough sunlight exposure during the day, backing off on alcohol consumption, and reduce blue light and the use of cell phones in their bedrooms to at least roll their clock back to some degree.

There’s no question that owning a great mattress also plays a part in an outstanding sleep hygiene regimen. You can visit our Trusted Dealer page and choose from a carefully curated list of mattress retailers that offer a premium mattress option for you, with our negotiated special discount included in the price.

In a broader sense, society has begun to see how important managing their own sleep hygiene actually is, and how much control we have over it as individuals. We are likely not going to see day to day activities shifting times to accommodate night owls, though, children and teens, who need more sleep simply because of their age and physiology, are the driving force behind later school start times.

Night owls may have a condition called delayed sleep phase syndrome and may be at higher risk for serious health consequences and social impacts. What causes the tendency to be a night owl? How might night owls learn to sleep better through simple behavioral changes?

First, it is important to understand how someone with a night owl tendency is defined. It is helpful to understand a process that contributes to normal sleep: the circadian rhythm.

When problematic, being a night owl is considered a circadian rhythm disorder. The circadian rhythm synchronizes processes within the body—including the propensity for sleep and wakefulness as well as hormonal fluctuations and even body temperature. Night owls have a delay in timing compared to when darkness occurs.

The symptoms of delayed sleep phase syndrome may include:

  • Sleep-onset insomnia

  • Inability to get moving, or jump start yourself in the morning (might be a genetic factor, as we mentioned)

  • Sleep deprivation effects (mood problems, poor concentration, increased pain, hallucinations, etc.)

It is believed that night owls have a genetic tendency toward their condition. Delayed sleep phase syndrome affects about 10 percent of the population. It often begins in the teenage years, but it may persist throughout life. This can have important consequences on health, social and occupational functioning, and well-being.

Consequences Of Night Owl Behavior Can Be Devastating

Unfortunately, there can be serious consequences to being a night owl. Some of these are reflected by a fairly rigid society that may not recognize the condition, and fail to provide appropriate treamtent or management. Health may also be undermined by its’ effects as well.

There are pretty frightening statistics regarding the effects of being a night owl. Recent research supports an association between being a night owl as having a 10% higher incidence of sudden death. There is also a higher incidence of other health problems, including:

  • Weight gain due to metabolic impacts

  • Cardiovascular risk (sudden myocardial infarction))

  • Diabetes

  • Anxiety And Depression

  • Alcohol and Drug Abuse

These health impacts may only become apparent over a long period of time. Many may be linked to the slow and insidious effects of sleep deprivation, the result of a delay in sleep onset and being restricted to mandatory early awakenings at least five days a week.

Social impacts, especially after childhood years,  become evident very quickly. People who are night owls may be accused of being slovenly, lazy, and incapable of managing time. This is especially common among teenagers who struggle with this condition, especially if the genetic component is involved.

Difficulty waking up on time may lead to chronic tardiness at school or work, followed by chronic absenteeism.  While trying to be productive during early morning hours, these students may have severe problems with concentration and attention to task.

There can also be severe impacts on domestic lives and relationships. A partner may not understand the reason why it is so difficult for a night owl to get to sleep and waking up when everyone else rises.

How to Sleep Better And Alter Your Night Owl Behaviors

In order to reduce or eliminate insomnia, and to avoid the effects of sleep deprivation, there are some simple behavioral changes that may be helpful. In many cases, participation in a formal cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) program can be of benefit. This therapy may be available from a therapist, a workshop, or downloadable apps.

To get started, consider these suggestions.

  • Get up at the same time every day, including on weekends

  • Set an alarm and put it across the room, forcing you to get out of bed to turn it off, and don’t come back to bed. Never use the snooze button.

  • Get 15-30 minutes of sunlight immediately upon awakening (or at sunrise).

  • In the winter months, if it is still dark when you need to wake, consider using a lightbox.

  • Go to bed when you feel sleepy, even if this means delaying your bedtime to match when you naturally feel sleepy.

  • If you are not meeting your sleep needs, gradually adjust the bedtime earlier in 15-minute increments weekly to increase your total sleep time.

  • Do not lie awake in bed at night. If it takes more than 15 minutes to fall asleep, get up and do something relaxing and come back to bed when you are feeling more sleepy.

  • Preserve the bedroom as a sleep sanctuary, reserving it as a space solely for sleep and sex.

  • Avoid blue light and devices in the one to two hours before your desired bedtime.

  • Spend the last 30 minutes before bedtime reading, listening to quiet music, or watching a familiar movie.

  • Minimize naps during the day to improve your sleep at night.

  • Do not drink caffeine or alcohol in the four to six hours prior to going to sleep.

The key recommendation for night owls to fall asleep earlier, and wake easier, is to observe a fixed wake time and get morning sunlight every day upon awakening and to go to bed when feeling sleepy.

In general, sleeping pills and alcohol use should be avoided. These are often ineffective, and as a result, doses may escalate to get even a modest effect. This can increase the risks for overdose and potentially death.

If sleep has become very destabilized, with the desire to sleep seeming to drift across the 24-hour period, this may represent a problem called non-24 circadian disorder. Consultation with a board-certified sleep physician may help to identify the problem.

Melatonin is a natural supplement that might help with sleep induction. Other medications such as tasimelteon may be useful in select populations, such as among the blind.

Night owls should always allow sufficient time to meet their sleep needs. In some cases, professional choices and delayed school start times may provide additional benefit.