Why can some people spring out of bed while the rest of us hit snooze for as long as possible? Stylist investigates.
In my ideal world, every day would be a duvet day – until 10am, at least. I wish I was one of those people who jumped out of bed, had an amiable chat with my husband, and skipped off to work having already polished off a 5K run and a bowl of porridge. But the truth is, I’m far more likely to have hit snooze five times, grunted at my beloved while regarding his toast with barely disguised revulsion then slumped into my office chair with my second double-espresso of the day. I have spent my entire life wondering what it would be like if I could only muster up a 6am spring in my step – how much happier I would be, how much more I would get done, how I might actually make it to the gym occasionally. But, as hard as I try, I can barely even rustle up a smile for a good couple of hours after the sun has risen. I honestly envy morning people their energy more than I do JK Rowling her millions.
I am not alone in my aversion to sunrise – it is estimated that 62% of Britons need 15 minutes to an hour after waking to feel human. It would be easy to assume that this inability to function first thing is a modern affliction. After all, we have exhausting lifestyles. But everyone knows someone who manages to stretch an extra couple of hours out of the day, simply because their transition from asleep to awake is quick and painless. A report by sociologists at Cornell University in New York, drawing on messages posted on Twitter by more than 2 million people in 84 countries, found that 16% of users are morning people, showing peaks of positivity very early in the day. And we all know someone in that 16% – we’re either married to them, have been on holiday with one, or at the very least sit near a chirpy early bird at work. We’ve also seen how successful they are – Margaret Thatcher famously only needed four hours’ sleep while she was Prime Minister and Anna Wintour rises at 5am for a game of tennis and a professional blow-dry before work.
“Anna Wintour rises at 5am for a game of tennis and a blow-dry before work”
It would be easy to believe these women are either superhuman or lying, but actually, there is such a thing as a morning person – and that’s down, at least in part, to our ancestors. This division into morning and evening types has its roots in evolution, with early risers in the Stone Age taking the initiative in food gathering, while owls stood guard late into the night. Those who fell into neither category could sleep safely in the knowledge that their needs were being taken care of. It was only in later years, when humans moved from hunter-gathering to tending animals and harvesting crops, that morning people were useful for the early starts, while those with an evening preference were perceived as less industrious.
Fast forward a few thousand years, and just as one in 10 of us are true early birds, Michael Smolensky PhD and Lynne Lamberg discovered in recent research. Two in 10 are night owls and the rest are indifferent – ready for action either early or late. This tendency can even be observed in rats. The Octodon degu, a laboratory rodent that’s naturally active during the daytime, has been used by scientists at the University of North Carolina to study biological clocks. The scientists found that some run around mainly in the morning, others are keener on the evening, while others display no preference. Of the 49 studied, about one in 10 was a morning type, with its activity peaking at 7am, two in 10 were evening types, at their most active at 9pm. The rest fell somewhere between. In other words – those rodents are just the same as us, minus the double-shot latte.
Born this way?
But what is it that makes morning people (or, indeed, rats) that way? Do our genes decide whether we wake up with a spring in our step, or attach ourselves sleepily to a caffeine drip? It’s actually down to a master clock in the brain that regulates a circadian rhythm that synchronises the body’s schedule to the 24-hour day. Our circadian rhythms differ from each other – a morning person’s clock runs slightly fast which makes them sleepier in the evening.
The evening person’s body clock, on the other hand, runs a bit slow. “About 50% of a person’s chronotype [a human attribute that reflects whether we are alert and prefer to be active early or late in the day] is inherent,” says leading sleep expert Dr Chris Idzikowski. So, just as we’re born tall or short, we are genetically predisposed to mornings or evenings. Researchers at the University of Surrey believe they have actually isolated the gene – called Period 3, which is involved in regulating the body’s internal clock. It comes in two versions – a shorter and longer one. Morning people have the long version while those with an extreme preference for evenings often have the shorter version.
Scientists at the Research Institute for Time Studies at Yamaguchi University in Japan believe they can actually tell which chronotype you are from the hairs on your head, as the genes that regulate the body clock are found in follicular cells. Researchers pulled strands of hair from their subjects’ heads and beards at three hour intervals during one day. The subjects had provided their preferred waking and sleeping schedules and researchers found that each person’s body-clock gene activity peaked right after a subject had woken up, whatever time that was – meaning that the brain switches on these genes at different times of the morning in different people.
So that grumpiness and inertia you feel until you’ve had a coffee isn’t your fault – you can blame it on your parents and your inherited genetic make-up. Cary Cooper CBE, professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University, takes this parental blame one step further. “We all have certain energy levels and those energy levels are displayed at different times depending on your body – but they are then socialised in us by our parents, upbringing and lifestyle.”
“Women have to fight against our natural ‘early bird’ clock to achieve all our commitments”
Deborah Watson, a director of a successful PR agency is an example of this. “Most weekday mornings I’m up before 5am. My family was always morning focused, dad ran his own business and for as long as I can remember he was out the door before 7.30am.”
Deborah’s father was the exception rather than the rule though. Ever wondered why the men in your office are unusually quiet before 11am? It’s because women are naturally the more ‘morning’ sex. A new study from researchers at Harvard found that our circadian rhythms run on average six minutes faster than men. Some women – more than one in three – have inner clocks that run especially fast. If this clock doesn’t get reset we get increasingly out of sync with the 24-hour cycle we live by. This means that women have to constantly fight against our inner ‘early bird’ clock, working throughout the evening to achieve all our family and work commitments instead of having an early night. But as much as many of us would love to be a morning person, it can have adverse effects too – women report insomnia 50% more than men and our faster clocks could go some way to explain this. Charles Czeisler, a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School believes that this is a fundamental reason why women are sleep deprived.
Age, as well as gender, is also considered to be a contributing factor to how we deal with mornings. A 2002 study from the European Sleep Research Society of over 6,000 adolescents threeshowed that this is a stage in which the sleep-wake cycle tends to become delayed compared with children, who have fairly rigid body clocks. Christoph Randler, a biology professor at the University of Education in Heidelberg, Germany, says chronotypes also evolve over a person’s life cycle: teenagers are classic evening types; then between the ages of 30 and 50, we are evenly split between morning and evening. People tend to become morning types in their 50s, whatever their previous preference has been.
The Science of Sleep
For both sexes, adult or adolescent, the exact time of day you choose to set your alarm can have a definite effect on your attitude to the morning. Studies show that it’s not the amount of sleep we’ve had that means we feel awake and full of energy – it can be dependent on the number of complete sleep cycles we’ve had, each of which lasts an average of 90 minutes (on 65 minutes of lighter sleep, then 20 minutes of deep, REM sleep, followed by a final five minutes of light sleep). Without an alarm, that would mean our body would choose to wake up after multiples of 90 minutes (so after seven and a half hours or nine hours, not seven or eight hours). That’s one of the reasons why we can feel groggy after an epic lie-in but wide-eyed and full of the joys of spring after a relatively short night’s sleep.
Indeed, we are also more likely to be full of the joys of spring during, well, spring and summer. Waking up to natural light increases our ability to drag ourselves out from under the duvet – our bodies are simply programmed to sleep more during dark, cold winter nights and until the invention of the electric light, we were mostly allowed to do just that. Think how much harder it was to get up on this cold October morning than on a sunny August dawn.
Mind Over Matter
For all the biology and evolution involved though, some of us – those seven out of 10 whose bodies are ready for action either early in the morning or late at night – have simply made the decision to be morning people, and to push their bodies and minds to get the most out of the day. Professor Cooper believes that personality is a driving factor: “Someone who is achievement-orientated is more likely to get up early than someone passive and laid back.” Just look at Condoleezza Rice. She gets up at 4.30am every day to work out but admits it isn’t easy. “I’m not an automaton,” she has said. “I don’t wake up every morning thinking, ‘Oh yeah, let’s go!’ I have to push myself.” Studies have shown correlations between our chronotype and our personality, showing evening people to be creative, intelligent but often neurotic, whereas morning people are generally more agreeable, optimistic, conscientious and satisfied with life.
Nicola Mendelsohn, executive chairman of ad agency Karmarama and president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising believes being an early riser is part of her personality. “I wake up immediately at 6am, no matter what time I went to bed and it only takes me 20 minutes to get out of the house. But I think that’s a mental attitude. It’s all about making use of every moment and getting as much into the day as possible.”
It’s easy to feel like an underachiever when you’re not a morning person. We’ve all got one friend who has applied a perfect face of make-up fired off her first 20 emails of the day and finished a presentation before we’ve even had a shower – and the uncomfortable truth is, she may well get promoted quicker than her bleary-eyed colleagues. Research by Christoph Randler published in the Harvard Business Review, showed that morning people get better grades in school then go to better colleges, which leads to better job opportunities. They also “anticipate problems and try to minimise them,” which is a useful trait in the workplace.
“It’s more important to be seen to be on top of everything at the beginning of the day”
If that makes the night owls among you want to hand in your notice, pack a sleeping bag and move to a desert island, the good news is that it’s possible to reset our clocks, and change our mindset. “Only a small number of extreme people find it very hard to adjust to one chronotype or the other,” says Dr Christine Bundy, senior lecturer in psychology and medicine at the University of Manchester. “It’s largely driven by external influence – the most common example is women who have children or shift workers. Mentally, you can make a decision to change – you just need to have a strong motivation to do it.”
But how, exactly, can we do that? “The best way to accelerate a change is by completely immersing ourselves in the new time frame,” says Dr Bundy. For example, the advice when you cross a time zone is to adjust to the new time as quickly as possible. It’s basically the same advice here. “Get used to going to bed at the new time – if you have to be up at 5am every day, then don’t lie in till 10am at the weekend, no matter how tempting. Keep it consistent or the body will become confused,” she says. Studies show that one in five of us relies on our natural body clock to wake up. So if we night owls set our alarm clocks to the same time every day, our bodies will start to naturally respond – even if that time is 5.30am. “Once you get into the pattern, the pattern will soon reinforce itself,” says Professor Cooper.
Mentally, it’s also better to commit yourself to a time when you want to get up. And plan what you are going to do with the extra time, whether that is reading the papers, going to the gym or cooking yourself a proper breakfast – having two hours to play with and tasks to fill them with will stop you heading back to bed.
We can also harness our natural circadian rhythm by looking at our diet and lifestyle. A 2009 study on mice from the Kagawa Nutrition University suggests that the circadian clock can be controlled by sticking to a low-carb, high-fat diet. It was administered to mice for 14 days and the results showed a substantial forward shift of the biological clock. Yoga and meditation expert Anandi certainly believes we can become early risers through a combination of meditation and diet. “Never go to bed on full or empty stomach. Eat a big lunch and a lighter, low-carb dinner in the evening as it’s easier to digest. Eat foods that contain tryptohan such as turkey, brown rice, avocados and bananas – this is the amino acid that the body uses to make serotonin, the neurotransmitter which slows down nerve traffic, encouraging better sleep. And meditate before bed. Half an hour is the equivalent of four hours’ sleep. These lifestyle adjustments will all help you become a morning person.”
And if none of this works, you can a t least hold on to the fact that you’ll become a morning person as you grow older: generally, people in their 60s and 70s find they can function well with only six and a half or seven hours of sleep per night, whether they are naturally a morning person or a night owl. So, as our bedtimes get earlier – as we age, our bodies secrete less melatonin so older people feel sleepier in the evening – we naturally wake up earlier in the morning. That means that by the time you retire, you’ll be happily springing out of bed at 6am. Oh…
Picture credits: Rex Features
Words: Ali Harris