To bed or not to bed – that is the question!?
I used to be a nightowl! To 100%. Have been all my life. During my time at university I went to bed between 3 an 5 AM, sometimes moving reluctantly from Computer to bed. My website used to be called til5.am. And of course I was member at the Nightowl Society on Facebook 😅
There`s a German saying I lived by: “Verschiebe nicht auf morgen was du heute kannst besorgen!” meaning ‘Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today’ …but it rymes in German 😉 It just felt better to finish a milestone before rewarding myself with some sleep. It did feel great using this quiet time to get stuff done. But it was also kind of like being addicted – even though I had told myself before ‘you got this course tomorrow morning at 8 AM, better get an early night’. But it just never happened.
A Hopeless Case?! By now, ideally around 10 p.m. or at the latest 10:30 p.m., my head meets the pillow!
In this article, Til describes his transformation from a night owl to an early bird. If you, too, struggle with sleeping, constantly find yourself going to bed late, or simply don’t feel 100% energized during the day, take a look at the tips below and see if you can implement some of them. Get ready to have a blast while reading!
Jump directly to one of the following chapters:
1. Why ist it cool to be a night owl?
2. Is there really something like a genetically determined night owl?
3. Why I chose to quit being a night owl
4. Last but not least: How to sleep well?
Why is being a night owl so cool?
Night owls are creative and intelligent, often introverted, and shy away from the noise of the day. I was definitely a night owl. And I was surrounded by other night owls at work in media production: “I only start functioning properly after noon.” Coffee cups everywhere and traffic jams at the coffee machine.
You’re cool when you stay up late and get by with little sleep – highly respected in the working world (at least back then, though there seems to be a change nowadays). Even my friends appreciated being able to ask for relationship advice at 2 a.m. without waking me up with a call. 😄
Time flies when you’re in the zone and can be creatively undisturbed. Plus, you can observe the stars and ponder the vastness of the universe… unless it’s cloudy, of course.
The night has many intriguing facets that remain invisible during the day – numerous animals are nocturnal. Can’t there also be people who come alive at night?
But do night owls really exist?
It seems to be the case… Scientists have already identified 22 genes that influence sleep behavior. These genes can define our chronotype through genetic analysis: early birds, normal, or night owls.
BUT the more you delve into the topic of genes, the clearer the distinction between the genome and the epigenome becomes: Excuse me? My DNA is 98% similar to that of a pig?!? I love little piggies, but aren’t the differences between humans and pigs greater than just 0.02%? This is where the epigenome comes into play—the substance within our cells that tells genes whether to stay dormant or become active. It’s like flicking the switch on and off for our genes.
Now, the crucial question is: Do night owls exist among pigs too? Most likely. But the real question is: Can we influence the epigenome with our behavior? And here’s the good news: Yes, we can!
In a study, students who generally leaned towards night owl tendencies were sent camping in nature. After a week of exposure to solely natural light sources, their internal clocks significantly shifted. They became early-to-bed and early-to-rise individuals.
That means WE can influence which genes are switched on and off! Below, we’ll explore what exactly we can do to adjust our wake-sleep rhythm correctly—for good sleep and optimal performance during the day.
To circle back to the initial question: This could imply that there may not actually be genetic night owls, but rather people (like me) whose circumstances/habits have activated those specific genes.
These circumstances may even start influencing us in early childhood. For example, one of our daughters tends to sleep longer in the morning. Interestingly enough (or perhaps not so coincidentally?), she sleeps in the same room I occupied as a child. The window faces northwest, allowing her to witness the sunset in the summer—leaving the room relatively bright even with the blinds closed. Our early-rising daughters, on the other hand, have windows facing east.
Why I don’t want to be a night owl anymore
Matthew Walker (sleep expert #1): “… Yeah, you’re not finding food, you’re not reproducing, you’re not finding a mate, you’re not caring for your young, and worst of all, you’re vulnerable to predation. So, on any one of those grounds, and especially all of them as a collective, Mother Nature should have strongly selected against this thing called sleep. ” But she didn’t – in fact “sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day—Mother Nature’s best effort yet at contra-death” and of course general health, focus, productivity and happiness – a life worth living.
So what does staying up late and getting poor or insufficient sleep do to us?
In psychotherapy, it’s often the case that people with psychological problems also have issues with their sleep-wake rhythm. When life is really falling apart, adjusting our internal clock can work wonders. Most of the readers here hopefully don’t have major problems getting their lives on track, but even for us regular folks, just one night with an hour less sleep can have a negative impact on our cognitive abilities.
A night of poor sleep increases the concentration of pathological proteins in the brain. If this isn’t a regular occurrence, it tends to balance out. However, since these proteins are responsible for Alzheimer’s, it’s clear that a consistently elevated concentration, such as from chronic poor sleep, can lead to damage.
There is a wealth of studies that demonstrate the further disadvantages of poor or insufficient sleep. Here are a few examples of the negative effects:
- Risk factor for Alzheimer’s
- Weakened immune system
- Reduced physical performance
- Decreased concentration and diminished brain capacity
- Risk factor for Alzheimer’s and depression
- Disrupted insulin regulation with increased risk of diabetes
- Increased blood pressure – heightened risk of heart attack
- Higher frequency of stress and headaches
- Dull and blemished skin, dark circles, premature aging
- Disturbed hormone production and impaired muscle growth
- General increase in mortality risk
On the flip side, it’s important to note that good sleep does us a world of good. With quality sleep, we can improve multiple health parameters and slow down the aging process.
Personally, I felt like I was aging faster (more on that in a future article about aging). Both my diet and exercise were in need of improvement, but my kryptonite (the thing that drained Superman’s powers) was definitely sleep deprivation.
For shift workers or those with young children, not all of the tips listed below may be easily applicable. However, some of them might even be helpful in improving the sleep of our little night owls. 😄
How to sleep well?
Getting a good night’s sleep is not as hard as it might seem—just choose a few tips and give them a try! Most are not difficult to implement, and the payoff is more energy and a better mood throughout the day!
The most important thing is to set your internal clock right! Light (or darkness), movement, nutrition, temperature, and, above all, consistency can help us with that.
Light is the number one timekeeper for our bodies. When we have our meals and when we exercise are additional cues for our body to understand what time of day it is. Furthermore, factors like our mental state and temperature can also play a role. And of course, everything becomes easier with consistency.
So, let’s embrace the power of light, get moving, eat well, find the right temperature, and establish a regular routine. Before you know it, you’ll be dozing off into dreamland and waking up feeling refreshed and ready to conquer the day!
Light and Dark
- In the first hour after waking up, get outside into natural daylight for at least 10 minutes (during the deep winter, bright artificial light sources can serve as a substitute).
- Expose your eyes to as much sunlight as possible throughout the day (but never stare directly at the sun!). When working indoors, use bright ceiling lamps. The message to your body is: It’s daytime, you’re awake and alert!
- If possible, spend some time outdoors again in the late afternoon/evening, basking in the glow of the setting sun. In the evening, use only minimal lighting indoors (if possible, opt for low-level light sources on tables or floors, avoiding or reducing overhead lighting).
- Establish a digital sunset: If you want to go to bed by 11 p.m., turn off all computers, phones, and televisions by 9 p.m., or use them in “eye-friendly” mode (reduced blue light) if necessary.
- During the night, keep your bedroom as dark as possible. If needed, wear an eye mask.
- If you need to use the bathroom during the night, try to do so with minimal lighting. Bright bathroom lights can not only prevent you from falling back asleep immediately but also disrupt hormone levels (such as cortisol and dopamine) at the wrong time.
- By incorporating these tips, you’ll optimize your exposure to light and darkness, helping to regulate your sleep-wake cycle and promoting a restful night’s sleep. Rest easy!
- Always having breakfast and dinner at the same time helps the body regulate its internal clock. If you practice intermittent fasting and skip breakfast, you can rely on tea or coffee (preferably one hour after waking up) as morning timekeepers.
- Start dinner as early as possible—ideally, 3-4 hours before bedtime—so that digestion doesn’t interfere with sleep, allowing the regenerative fasting phase (e.g., autophagy) to kick in.
- Keep dinner light. Large meals linger in your system and disrupt sleep. If possible, avoid sugary foods too.
- Engaging in morning exercise is best when your cortisol levels naturally peak. It helps you wake up and get moving.
- During midday, keep active—check out my blog post on taking 10,000 steps a day. The depth and quality of your recovery phase depend on the efforts you put in during the day.
- In the afternoon, you can also do a small workout, but as you approach your desired bedtime, it’s best to steer clear of strenuous activities.
- By following these tips, you’ll be able to synchronize your eating patterns, maximize the benefits of exercise, and pave the way for a restful night’s sleep. Let’s keep our bodies in rhythm and dance to the beat of good sleep!
- Right after waking up, warm beverages can help with the awakening process (but let’s hold off on the coffee for at least one hour after waking up). They raise your body temperature. Applying warmth to your hands (by holding a cup of tea) and to the soles of your feet can also help bring your core temperature up to daytime levels.
- However, cold showers or baths can also be recommended in the morning or early afternoon (very beneficial for your health and, in the long run, mood-lifting: a dopamine boost). The increase in cortisol and dopamine levels is invigorating. Plus, the cold stimulus on your skin encourages your body to raise its core temperature.
- In the afternoon or evening, saunas and warm baths are more recommended, especially for their calming effect on the mind. Interestingly, taking a warm shower shortly before bedtime can actually help lower your core temperature slightly, making it easier to fall asleep.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom low. You can use a warm blanket, but the low room temperature allows for cooling through the extension of your hands or feet (which happens subconsciously). To explain further, during sleep, your body temperature is lowered, reaching its minimum about two hours before you wake up in the morning.
- So, let’s warm up with a cozy beverage in the morning, invigorate ourselves with a refreshing cold shower, and create a cool and comfortable sleep environment at night. It’s all about finding the right temperature balance for a good night’s sleep and a vibrant start to the day!
- Evening herbal tea (such as chamomile, lemon balm, sage, lavender, fennel, etc.) after dinner is a delightful way to unwind.
- Set a “sleep alarm” (for example, at 9 p.m.) to remind yourself to start winding down.
- Yoga or meditation for stress relief (it trains your mind to stay calm when falling asleep).
- Avoid stressful situations—save discussions about sensitive topics with your partner for the morning or afternoon. Don’t dwell too much on sleeplessness or illnesses.
- No horror movies or watching the news (but let’s keep those digital devices switched off anyway because of the light exposure).
- Try breathing exercises to reduce anxiety and stress. For example, 1-3 deep breaths that mimic a physical sigh can help alleviate fears and calm the mind: take a deep breath through your nose, hold it briefly, then take another quick breath and exhale slowly through your mouth.
- Take a warm bath or shower.
- Here’s a bonus tip from a monk—when you sit on your bed and take off your shoes/socks, let the left sock or shoe represent the past, and the right one represent the future. By removing them, we leave those thoughts in the shoes/socks and can fully focus on the here and now—the well-deserved peace and sleep.
Consistency & Other Tips
- Try to incorporate as many of the above points into your daily routine at the same times each day. At the very least, keep your bedtime and waking times consistent (variations no greater than 30 minutes), even on weekends!
- If possible, avoid afternoon naps. If necessary, keep them short and early in the day—consistency is key.
- Avoid alcohol after dinner. While it may help you fall asleep faster, it disrupts sleep quality and can lead to early awakenings. Overall, it’s not beneficial for your health.
- Don’t use your bed for eating, watching TV, or working. Your bed should be reserved only for sleep and intimacy.
- Be cautious with sleeping pills: Long-term use can lead to increased insomnia or dependency. Additionally, natural hormone melatonin supplements should only be taken under medical supervision, as overdosing can disrupt hormone balance and cause other issues.
Important note: The tips mentioned above are intended to provide you with tools to improve your sleep (not to stress you out about what you should do!). Choose the ones that resonate with you and create a sleep routine that works best for you. Sleep well and sleep tight!
Interestingly enough, an argument for my former night owl lifestyle is the same one that motivates extreme early birds: the peace and productivity while others (the disruptive elements) are already or still asleep, right?
Here’s another fascinating finding: It seems that as we age, we don’t actually need less sleep. It’s just that, for various reasons, we tend to sleep a bit worse or less as we get older (e.g., waking up due to pain or needing to use the bathroom).
I’m still at the beginning of my journey towards a good night’s sleep—with three little girls, nights can be a bit fragmented. My sleep tracking app sometimes tells me that I’ve landed in the lowest 20% of all app users when it comes to sleep quality. But it’s getting better: I actually find myself going to bed as early as 10 p.m. and trying more and more of the above-mentioned tips myself. So, here’s to wishing us all success!
Thank you for reading, and goodnight! 😴
Disclaimer: Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor! All the tips here are meant to be tried at your own risk. I don’t believe any of the suggestions could have negative effects, but if the above tips don’t help or the symptoms are advanced, it’s important to consult a doctor.