I am not kidding. Very recently, I had my DNA sequenced and it revealed something that I have always intuitively known; that my natural bedtime preference is after midnight; and that I am not a morning person.
My parents and brother are the same way. We are all genetically pre-disposed to being night owls.
Instead of fighting this, I have come to embrace it.
And you know what?
I truly believe that I was destined and pre-selected to be a scientist and track and field athlete because of my night owl genes. My work hours line up perfectly with the requirements of my career.
For instance, in academia (where I work as a sleep researcher), work usually starts after 10:30am, and continues far into the afternoon/evening. This aligns perfectly with my body’s natural sleep cycle.
Having my body’s sleep cycle lined up with my work requirements gives me a major boost in energy and productivity. This allows me to have a higher total output!
So how can you tell what type of sleep genes you have? The answer is that it all comes down to how your internal body clock functions.
What Are Body Clocks?
Body clocks drive circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms cue you when to sleep, eat, exercise, and when to perform at your best. Each tissue of our body has an internal pacemaker that ticks on a near 24 hour schedule and is sensitive to abrupt and stressful changes in our environment.
Examples of environmental changes include; shift work, travel across time zones or doing a high-intensity interval workout in the middle of the night.
A unique team of genetic factors drives the precise ticking of our body clocks. Some of these genetic factors increase expression of your genes, others suppress. Thus, it is the constant push-and-pull relationship of these genetic factors that determines if we have body clocks that tick more quickly than 24 hours or slower than 24 hours.
What does this mean?
If you are an early bird, your body clocks tick faster. If you are a night owl like me, your body clocks tick slower.
Over the years, one's preference as an early bird or night owl is linked to differing personalities. Extroverts are often early birds while introverts are mostly vampires.
The more creative and artistic types also tend to be night owls.
How To Determine If You Are An Early Bird or Night Owl:
Below are a few tips and tricks for telling if you are an early bird or a night owl.
1. Take the Morning-Eveningness Questionnaire (MEQ):
Scientists have been using this 5-minute questionnaire for decades. The MEQ will give you a reliable estimate of when you are most productive mentally and physically. I advise re-shaping your schedule based on the MEQ. And it's free!
2. Go on Vacation:
The first reason that you should go on vacation is to catch up on sleep. Most of us carry a "sleep debt" and there is nothing like vacation to catch up. So feel free to create a “sleep surplus” while on vacation! It’ll go a long way towards keeping you healthier and happier.
The second reason that you should go on vacation is to get back to your natural sleep-wake schedule. Work schedules, family schedules, and training schedules prevent our body clocks from truly expressing themselves the way they want to.
On vacation, let your body rest as it needs. Feel tired in the afternoon? Take a nap. Feel energized at night? Stay up and enjoy yourself.
It may take a few days for your internal body clocks to unmask their true rhythms. Put in the effort to really listen to your body. You will feel so much better once you allow your body clock to start to ticking the way it was genetically programmed to tick.
I advise re-shaping your daily schedules to capitalize on times of peak productivity. If your a night owl, see if you can shift your work schedule to reject that. If you are an “early bird”, shift your schedule to the morning.
3. Get Your DNA Sequenced.
There are several at-home DNA sequencing companies now that will tell you if you are an early bird or night owl. Our schedules can shape our health to an extent, but at the end of the day, nature always wins.
While these at-home sequencing services are pricey, especially as demand increases, it is worth every penny. I truly believe that my newly discovered knowledge about my mental and physical capabilities and limitations based on my genetic makeup are responsible for the continued successes that I have had in science and athletics.
Tips for Fine-Tuning Your Body Clocks:
Below are a few tips and tricks for zoning in your internal body clock.
•Eat Plenty of Greens
Science is constantly proving that “we are what we eat.” Body clocks find sugar revolting and will act accordingly. Prioritizing greens, healthy grains, fats, and proteins throughout the day stabilizes the body’s blood sugar levels.
Eating a low sugar, high protein snack before bed prevents blood sugar levels from spiking during the night, thereby disturbing the natural ticking of our body clocks.
• Avoid Light At Night
Light emitted from cell phones, tablets, and HDTVs actively shocks your internal body clocks. The ticking of body clocks is tied to melatonin: “the hormone of darkness”. Melatonin is released to help us fall asleep and stayasleep, maximizing our time in non-REM sleep. Melatonin release is extremely sensitive to LED light. Put away your technology at night and read a book.
Most people are magnesium-deficient and need to supplement. In fact, research shows that half of the US population is deficient. Magnesium, particularly magnesium biocarbonate, slightly elevates levels of carbon dioxide in our blood. This reaction tricks our brain into thinking it should be asleep. Magnesium helps to maintain and fine-tune our nervous system and keep all the nerve cells firing on schedule.
•Consider Taking a Natural Sleep Aid
Taking a high quality sleep supplement can help you during those restless nights. You can learn more about the best sleep aids to take here.
To conclude, I don't believe the early bird catches the worm. I believe that an informed bird catches the worm.
Dr. Allison Brager is a neuroscientist specializing in the physiology and genetics of sleep and performance. She is author of Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain, which debunks the myth of the "dumb jock" and serves as a manual for optimizing athletic performance through neuroscience. Outside of the laboratory, she is a former college athlete, Crossfit Games team athlete, and is still active in track and field: pole vault and hurdles.