This Year, Become a Morning Person
Night owls get a bad rap. They’re hitting snooze on their alarm clocks when their early bird counterparts are finishing a morning run and getting ahead of the day’s emails. Night owls feel most energized, motivated, and creative after dark. But most of us need to be alert and productive before noon, even when it’s not the body’s natural preference.
Can you turn yourself into a morning person?
Researchers say yes, but it takes time and effort to reset your body’s internal circadian clock. “It is possible to adjust your circadian rhythm with self-discipline and patience,” says Kori Ascher, D.O., a sleep medicine specialist with the University of Miami Health System. “It cannot be done in a short time period typically. Rather, it requires several weeks, or possibly months, to accomplish.”
The sun helps set our body’s sleep patterns. It signals with light and warmth that daytime is the right time to wake up and be physically active (and for the body to release glucose that provides energy).
When the sun sets, darkness and cooler temperatures encourage the body to release naturally calming melatonin, slow heart rate and breathing, and prepare for sleep.
What keeps you awake at night?
By the time you crawl into bed, you might not remember that extra cup of coffee you drank after dinner. Even if you don’t feel jittery from the caffeine, it’s still in your system, keeping deep sleep at bay. To ease falling asleep at night, cut off all coffee, teas, caffeinated sodas, and energy drinks by 2:00 p.m.
Looking at a glowing screen, exercising, and staying warm at night can delay the release of melatonin, extend the release of glucose, and trigger cravings for late-night snacking.
Emotionally and mentally stimulating activities like socializing and practicing a new hobby can keep the mind and body alert.
What can you do before bed instead of watching TV, scrolling through social media, or playing around on your laptop?
Listen to calming music or a podcast while doing dishes, folding laundry, or lounging on the couch with your partner.
Sitting all day and getting insufficient physical activity can trigger restlessness at night. Go to the gym or take a walk earlier in the day or immediately after dinner. This can give your body more time to burn off the feel-good endorphins and dopamine hormones before bedtime.
“Eating immediately before bed can promote the waxing and waning of sugar levels and hormone levels associated with digestion. These changes can interrupt sleep,” Dr. Ascher says. “Additionally, if you lay down with a full stomach, your stomach is much more level with the esophagus, which promotes acid reflux.”
You may assume that drinking a nightcap will help lull you into sleep. Alcohol does decrease sleep latency (how long it takes you to fall asleep). “But, the ‘catch-22’ is that alcohol also causes rebound insomnia. So, while you may fall asleep earlier, you can experience insomnia for the second half of the night,” Dr. Ascher says.
Alcohol also interferes with normal sleep architecture, interrupting the natural pattern of non-rapid and rapid eye movement sleep. “This is counterproductive to someone trying to achieve restorative sleep.”
On the other hand, marijuana’s anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) properties may help you fall asleep. With marijuana use before bed, “there is not a significant change in sleep architecture and maybe a mild decrease in sleep latency. However, marijuana substances are not FDA approved to treat sleep disorders.”
How to reset your circadian rhythm
The most controllable variable is your wake-up time. “If your ideal wake-up time is 6 a.m., set your alarm for 6 every day (weekends included),” Dr. Ascher says. “At 6, get out of bed and open the shades to get natural light. Natural light has properties that the body responds to with hormones that help awaken the body.”
To feel rested at your new wake-up time, you need to avoid naps and staying up late.
“Don’t sleep during the day, no matter how tired you are from getting up at your desired wake-up time,” she says.
Establish a bedtime routine.
Practicing a nighttime ritual will tell your brain and body that it’s time to wind down and prepare for sleep.
Lower the lights and turn up the A/C or turn down the heat an hour before you turn in for the night. A darker, cooler bedroom will help you fall and stay asleep.
Don’t hang out, watch TV, read, or eat in bed. Getting under the blanket should signal that it’s time to catch some zzzz’s.
Don’t engage in anything stressful like checking work email, getting into a heated conversation, or thinking about your long to-do list.
Complete your nightly hygiene before you get into bed.
Rolling out of bed, turning on the bathroom light, and brushing your teeth will un-do any progress you made toward getting sleepy.
Some people find adding a calming task to their nighty routine helpful. This could be 10 to 20 minutes of meditating (try a guided visualization or breathing exercise app), stretching, adult coloring, or journaling about the little moments you’re thankful for.
Have you heard of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response)? These oddly satisfying videos and audio recordings help lull audiences into sleep every night with repetitive sounds and whispers that many people find calming.
Tempted to take sleeping pills?
If you’re considering taking melatonin before bed, understand that this over-the-counter supplement doesn’t make you tired. Instead, it reminds your body that it’s time to prepare itself for sleep.
“Melatonin can assist in adjusting your circadian rhythm when it’s dosed and timed correctly,” Dr. Ascher says. “Chronic melatonin use is not necessarily addicting, but it’s not recommended long term for the symptoms of insomnia (or for insomnia at all).
“Furthermore, for long-term use, melatonin should be taken at a different dose than what’s indicated for circadian rhythm shifts. For example, high-dose melatonin can be a treatment for a sleep disorder called REM behavior disorder that is not associated with insomnia.”
Melatonin at any dose is not a magic pill and must be matched with behavioral changes.Kori Ascher, D.O.
If you think you need a prescription sleep aid to “knock you out” or help you stay asleep, speak with your primary care physician or a sleep specialist. “Sleeping pills have cumulative adverse effects, alter sleep architecture, and (some) have addictive properties — which are all reasons they are generally not recommended for long-term use,” Dr. Ascher says.
A prescription sleep aid may be helpful temporarily when you’re trying to transition from a night owl to a morning person. But, if falling asleep is typically difficult, an undiagnosed sleep disorder or an underlying medical condition may be the problem. Insomnia is not the only condition that interrupts sleep.
The quality and consistency of your sleep reflect the function of your nervous, cardiopulmonary, and endocrine (hormonal) systems. See your doctor to discuss the nature of your sleep dysfunction and to rule out sleep disorders and other conditions that can cause poor sleep.
Call the UHealth Sleep Center today: (305) 243-ZZZZ (9999).
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributor for UHealth’s news service.