Night owls, rejoice: there is no link between laziness and late sleep
Bias against night owls (those who wake at night and sleep in the day) and calling them lazy is “purely cultural”.
Shaming the circadian rhythm, the natural process that regulates sleep-wake cycles in bodies, is no longer "cool" - and genetics are to thank for that.
The body's sleep-wake schedule, called the chronotype, seems to be genetically regulated according to experts in a recent study in Finland that found 10% of men and 12% of women to be "night people".
A 2007 study even discovered that the most common chronotype found in 14.6% of people is a sleep schedule from 12.09 am to 8.18 am when there are no “social obligations”.
Dr. Beth Ann Malow, neurologist and sleep expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, said: “It’s not something like: ‘I’m gonna choose to be a night owl, and I’m lazy.’ It’s a biological preference.”
This point is seconded by Dr. Phil Gehrman, clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral sleep medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
He expressed that bias against night owls (those who wake at night and sleep in the day) is “purely cultural”.
A 2014 study concluded that the later in the day that class and work started, the more sleep individuals got.
Dr. Mathias Basner, director of Penn’s unit for experimental psychiatry in the division of sleep and chronobiology, said: “It’s the combination of early work start and long commute that is driving short sleep."
Social obligations may be the reason why
What happens when classes and work shifts don't match our circadian rhythm?
Staying up late turns into a condition known as delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, whereby circadian rhythms make daily life and functioning a hassle - approximately 0.2% to 1.7% of adults suffer from this.
Dr. Malow stated that sleep habits being viewed either as a tendency or as a disorder depends more on “lifestyle and their employment than it is anything else," adding that treatment really starts when people are able to adjust work schedules to biological rhythms.
For instance, she illustrates a patient who suffered in high school but excelled when he began a job as a chef or when students registered for late-night classes.
Rather than trying to catch up to social obligations, she says: “I would much rather [patients] stay on a consistent schedule where they’re going to bed at two and waking up at 10 or 11.”
Unfortunately, not many are lucky to have that option and enjoy that luxury. In that case, the hassle can be treated by working out and with melatonin intake, a natural hormone that the body releases to respond to darkness and thus to sleep.
According to Dr. Gehrman, these treatments can alter the circadian rhythm, but success rates vary.
Pros and cons of night owl-ing
Dr. Gehrman ruled out definite links between being awake at night and mental health or unhappiness.
“There are a lot of epidemiologic studies showing that being a night owl is associated with higher rates of depression and anxiety and all these things. But the open question is: is it the fact that you’re a night owl? Or is it the fact that most night owls are forced to follow a schedule that’s earlier than their circadian rhythm – what we often refer to as a mismatch,” he says. Recent studies have pointed to the latter, he says:
“It’s certainly not conclusive, but that’s what we think is going on.”
However, bias and shaming night owls for being lazy may benefit capitalism and the corporate "big guys." British researcher Dr. Paul Kelley argues that abiding by a 9-5 schedule suits 50+ year-old bosses because it's actually easier for them to get up early.
“People shouldn’t change their schedule because of the belief that following their schedule is bad for them,” Gehrman says, adding: “As humans, we always seem to say if someone’s different from us, they’re therefore wrong."
“I think people should look at circadian rhythm differences the same way they look at any other differences between people.”