Are You a Lark or an Owl?

6th October 2017

Apparently your preferred sleep pattern is all down to genetics, discovers a sleepy Heather Harris…

I’ve tried everything – drinking alcohol, not drinking alcohol, eating oily fish, avoiding bananas after 4pm, buying machines that make double espressos or blast out fake sunlight and ice on my feet. I’ve even joined an all-night gym – just in case I fancy a Zumba class at 3am. But it’s all in vain – I’m destined to forever be the person asleep in the corner at any party past 9pm.

For my 21st birthday, I thought an early breakfast party would be something different… No one came… until 11am.

At university, I was one of only a handful of students at morning lectures – most of the others were from overseas, so still jet-lagged. But come exam time, as my housemates revised through the night, I was snoozing over my text books before the end of University Challenge.

Apparently, I was born an early bird, and I continued to wake up with the dawn chorus chirping away right through my teens and into adulthood. My brothers meanwhile were the opposite – which made schoolday breakfast times as friendly as a Brexit summit. Interestingly, my parents were one of each (which does make you wonder how they ever produced three of us in the first place).

Our mix of family sleep patterns does, however, fit in with the latest genetic research carried out (no doubt way past midnight) by a group of bleary-eyed scientists in the USA who concluded that it’s nature not nurture.

‘Research indicates that 60% of today’s population has a variant called Adenine which is responsible for waking up early and 40% of today’s population houses a variant called Guanine which is responsible for preferring to wake up later.’ It is, apparently, ‘deep rooted in our evolutionary history’. In caveman times, survival relied on someone being on the lookout for danger 24 hours a day (‘sleeping on the job’ could be fatal) so, handily, genetics provided a mix of Adenines and Guanines.

Once this was finally proved, the geneticists headed off to bed and handed their research onto the psychologists… who yawned, rubbed their eyes and set out to discover whether the early bird really does catch the worm. According to a study by the University of Barcelona – presumably after their siesta – ‘larks hunt for stability in their lifestyle; night owls seek game during late hours’.

In other words, us early birds tend to be more persistent and less likely to experience ‘fatigue, frustration and difficulties’, whilst our nocturnal friends are more likely to enjoy ‘extravagance, impulsiveness and novelty-seeking’ (probably because there’s more novelty lurking in the moonlight than in our cornflakes?).

This fact was backed up by farmer’s wife Kate, who’s rushing around looking for someone to be impulsive with at midnight, since her ‘steady Eddie’ husband has been in bed since 8.30pm. “He has to be up at 5am every day and is definitely the more laid back!”

History is repeating itself in this household as Kate’s Mum was a spontaneous, lively night owl, and also married a farmer. “She always warned me against it,” recalls Kate, “as she knew it meant a future of always being the first to leave any party. And she was right.”

Self-confessed ‘steady and pragmatic’ dawn riser Michelle wakes before 7am every day, “irrespective of what time I get to bed”. She was the same through school and university. “It’s had a massive impact on my relationship, as I am ever resentful of my husband’s ability to sleep in, leaving me to all the morning jobs. Plus, I attempt to stay up late with him… so am always sleep deprived.”

Now that’s a whole other can of worms. There is evidence that Adenines and Guanines can happily co-habit, but it does take a conscious effort.

As one friend confided in me, on conditions of anonymity, “I would agree with the findings that night owls and early birds have different personality traits. This combination has played a part in us surviving 26 years of marriage, but we do have separate bedrooms, otherwise we wouldn’t have coped with him getting up at 4.30am every morning.”

Meanwhile, schoolteacher Caroline who starts pottering about the house when her husband is asleep – “and I’m still putting a wash on at midnight” – now rings her husband at work in their lunch hours if they need to have a conversation about anything important, as this is the only time they are both equally awake.

When it comes to intelligence, the results are eye-opening…Psychologists Roberts and Kyllonen measured 420 participants and gave them intelligence tests including maths, reading comprehension, working memory and processing speed. The results favoured of the evening types, who were reported to have better scores.

That fact is backed up by another exhaustive study, this time from the University of Leicester, who discovered that ‘more intelligent children are more likely to grow up to be nocturnal adults who go to bed late and wake up late on both weekdays and weekends’.

So much for all those early morning lectures then! Perhaps our brain cells actually just need a lie in?

The trouble is unless you’re a 3am Zumba teacher, a shift-worker in the medical/security or media professional or a cat burglar, there’s no one around to take advantage of your superior brain power. When it comes to sleep patterns – society sets its alarm at around 7am. As Roberts and Kyllonen admit, ‘the fact that night owls score higher doesn’t make them more likely to obtain success. Evidently early birds are probably doing most of the work during the hours that fit the world of commerce, allowing success to be in their favour.’

Libby has found the perfect job for her nocturnal body clock. “As a sub-editor I work from 3pm to 10pm. I get back from work and am still buzzing, so am still winding down at 2.30am. But then I can lie in late…”

She did previously have a 9-5 job and found it impossible to change her sleeping pattern to fit. “I was permanently tired for a year,” she observes.

There are some illuminating tips to help us try and override our genes. According to Dr Adrian Williams, a professor of sleep medicine at Kings College in London (surely the least stressful job ever), “even though genetics determine the bulk of our sleep patterns, there are still ways we can make changes to our circadian rhythm.”

Night owls should limit light exposure (especially blue light from mobile phones) in the evening, and when their alarm goes off should immediately walk over to the window and get some direct sunlight, and then take a cool shower. “Hot water encourages tiredness.”

For early birds, Dr Williams recommends taking exercise late afternoon or early evening “to extend their day”.

So jogging with a cup of coffee and staring at my phone at 8pm could be the answer. Either that, or I’ll just find a farmer to marry…

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