Have you ever had the weird feeling like you’re on a different schedule than everyone around you?
Maybe you’re always yawning when your friends are just getting ready to go to dinner. Or no matter how many hours of sleep you get, you never really feel awake at work before noon.
Say hello to your chronotype, or your body’s biological clock.
How Do Chronotypes Work?
Many of our past articles have discussed circadian rhythms and our natural sleep-wake cycle, but our chronotype dictates our body’s natural tendency to fall asleep and wake up at a certain time of day. Our biological clock is influenced by the presence of bright light and more specifically, the production of melatonin. But not everybody falls asleep when the sun goes down—chronotypes are the explanation for some people tending to stay up till the sun rises and others nodding off on the couch before ever even making it to their bed.
Your chronotype comes from the length of your PER3 gene and is dependent on Your chronotype influences hormone levels, metabolic function, and body temperature, to name a few. While we cannot actively change our chronotype, chronotypes can change as our bodies and brains age (which is why many night owls become early birds in later years).
So how do our circadian rhythms and our chronotypes work together? Remember, your chronotype is influenced (in addition to a number of other genes) and plays a role in many internal systems, so while your body may naturally produce melatonin in the evening hours and cease production in the morning hours like most, your chronotype can influence your For example, morning people are more likely to have earlier onset of melatonin where melatonin production may be slightly delayed in “night owls.” It’s also worth noting that light exposure can also suppress melatonin production and impede sleep.
When our chronotypes impact one’s desired sleep routine to the point of preventing normal day-to-day functionality, it’s a sign of a circadian rhythm sleep disorder.
How Do You Tell Your Chronotype?
Chronotypes were first studied in the 1970s by Olov Ostberg, and since then, many sleep researchers have taken their stab at understanding and educating others on chronotypes. There are many different tests you can take to determine your chronotype, and if you were to visit a sleep medicine doctor you’d likely be given the morningness-eveningness questionnaire (MEQ) or the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire (MCTQ).
The morningness-eveningness questionnaire (MEQ) was developed by Olov Ostberg and Jim Horne and consists of 19 questions; it remains one of the most popular chronotype quizzes developed. Other sleep medicine researchers exploring chronotypes even use the MEQ as a jumping-off-point for their chronotype questionnaires. The Composite Scale of Morningness (CSM) is just one of those tests—the CSM analyzes items from the MEQ and the Diurnal Type Scale to offer better insight into your chronotype.
Another popular chronotype quiz is the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire, developed by Till Roenneberg. Roenneberg’s self-assessment was developed in 2000 and is one of the more popular chronotype self-assessments. This 19-question assessment analyzes your sleep-wake rhythms, energy levels, exposure to daylight, as well as sleep latency and inertia.
While these tests are the most thorough and regarded as the best for determining chronotypes, they can only be administered and analyzed by sleep doctors. If you’re looking for an online quiz, we suggest heading over to Dr. Breuss’s website, thepowerofwhenquiz.com. This can help you get a better idea of your sleep timing preferences.
Further studies of chronotypes have found that environment can also play a role in addition to genes. The MCTQ is an additional way to assess chronotype bases results on both days that involve structured daily schedules (such as weekdays with work) and work-free days (such as weekends). However, this measure would not easily be used in places or cultures with more flexible daily schedules. The late chronotype is often associated with bad health habits such as drinking caffeine or consuming depressants, but has revealed it could also be related to time constraints “imposed by society.”
Using Your Chronotype to Get Better Sleep
While we can’t change our chronotypes, you can use your knowledge of them to better tap into your internal clock and improve not only your sleep quality but also your productivity. Understanding your chronotype can help you set ideal bed and wake times, and help you better organize your schedule.
For example, if you know you’re a wolf, you’ll know that your peak productivity happens in the middle of the day, and you can schedule your more intensive work for mid-afternoons. On the other hand, if you’re a lion, you’ll know you’re most alert in the mornings and should schedule most of your to-do’s before the early afternoon hours.
Working against your natural wiring, as much as it might seem advantageous in a given moment, is not productive. Understanding your personal circadian clock (and how it operates) can help you get rejuvenating sleep at night and lead a happy, healthy life. If you constantly struggle to get good sleep and experience daytime fatigue, we recommend talking with your doctor, as it may be a sign of a more serious sleep disorder.
“Sleep disturbances associated with circadian rhythm disorders can detrimentally affect mental, physical, and cognitive health. If you suspect you are suffering from a sleep disorder, you can find trained behavioral sleep medicine providers here to support you in making changes to improve your sleep” suggests licensed clinical psychologist Katharine Simon.
Chronotypes: Our Interview with Sleep Expert Dr. Michael Breus
When you work against your natural inner schedule, and you’ll sort of have the feeling like you’re permanently jet-lagged. But when you work with it, you can sleep better at night, feel more energized during the day, and unlock your hidden potential, says sleep expert Michael Breus, Ph.D., in his new book The Power of When.
We talked with Dr. Michael Breus to learn more about chronobiology and what chronotypes are, how to uncover yours, and why working with it—instead of against it—is the real recipe for sleeping well and feeling great.
“When you work with [your chronotype], you can sleep better at night, and feel more energized during the day.”
– Dr. Michael Breus
Marygrace: What is a chronotype, and how does it influence when you feel tired and when you feel awake?
Dr. Breus: Your chronotype is a classification of when your genetic propensity is to sleep. It’s determined by theIf you have a long PER3 gene, you’re an early riser, and you need at least 7 hours of sleep to feel good. If you have a shorter PER3 gene, you’re a late riser, and can get by on less sleep.
If your social schedule is conflicting with your chronotype’s sleep schedule, then the times when you feel alert or sleepy are going to be more often and intense. As an example, if you are naturally a night owl (what I call a Wolf) you will NOT be a morning person.
MG: How does your chronotype play a role in your ability to achieve quality sleep?
Dr. Breus: Your chronotype is the natural way of showing you WHEN to sleep. If you sleep when your chronotype dictates it, then your sleep will be of higher quality. You’ll fall asleep faster, have fewer awakenings throughout the night, and maybe even sleep more deeply.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to sleep or wake up at times that go against your chronotype, you may not sleep as well, and you might feel worse when you’re awake.
Some signs that your chronotype might be out of sync with your schedule include feeling tired when you want to be alert or frequently having to drink coffee or energy drinks. You might also catch a second wind when everyone else is slowing down, or you start to slow down when everyone else is speeding up.
MG: Are early birds and night owls the only chronotypes?
Dr. Breus: No. Since back in our caveman days, we’ve needed a range of chronotypes to ensure our survival. I call these chronotypes Dolphins, Lions, Bears, and Wolves.
- Dolphins are light sleepers and tend to wake up at the slightest noise.
- Lions are classic morning types. In prehistoric times, these people would take the morning shift of guarding the group.
- Bears have an energy cycle that rises and falls with the sun. They’re most productive in daylight.
- Wolves are evening types. They naturally stay up later and sleep later. They’re just starting to drift off when Lions are waking up.
The lion chronotype tends to wake up naturally early. (Photo: s-tlk.org)
MG: What are some of the other surprising ways your chronotype can affect your daily life?
Dr. Breus: Everyone has hormones that “run” on a 24-hour cycle. The cycle is tied to when levels of certain hormones go up, and when levels of certain hormones go down. The starting point for this cycle is when you wake up from sleeping.
Of course, your chronotype influences more than just sleep. In my book, I map out 50 different activities that fall under categories like health, sleep, food, work, money, fun, relationships, fitness, and creativity. Your chronotype plays a role in all of these things.
MG: What are some clues that can tell you what your chronotype is?
Dr. Breus: You can probably begin to tell by paying attention to when you naturally like to go to sleep and when you naturally like to wake up. But if you aren’t quite sure, take our chronotype test at thepowerofwhenquiz.com. It only takes a minute.
MG: If your schedule doesn’t mesh with your chronotype, can you change your chronotype? Or at least take steps to sleep better and feel more energized?
Dr. Breus: It’s hard to fool nature, but there are things you may be able to do. For instance, using light therapy during the day could help you feel more energized.
How do I find my chronotype?
You can start by taking the Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (AutoMEQ). This will tell you your circadian rhythm type. The MCTQ is currently unavailable to take online, but you can peruse the physical copy here.
What is the ideal bedtime?
The best bedtime is when you feel sleepiest! If night owls try to go to bed earlier, they may toss and turn for hours before falling asleep. Conversely, early risers shouldn’t try to stay awake too late. If you pay attention to obvious signals, you’ll notice you get tired at the same time every day. That said, if you’re always feeling tired, you may have a sleep disorder or you’re just not getting enough sleep. Make sure you’re getting at least 7-9 hours every night.
Can humans be nocturnal?
Millions of years ago, our mammalian ancestors were nocturnal, but nowadays, we’re diurnal (awake during the day and asleep at night). This adjustment comes from our lifestyles and the fact that we follow circadian rhythms based on the sun rising and going down.
What are the four chronotypes?
The chronotype classification system falls into four groups: lion, dolphin, wolf, and bear. However, research breaks it into morning type, evening type, or neither type (has traits of both). Most people are bears, but you can find out what you are by taking a quiz.
Can I change my chronotype?
Maybe you’re feeling sleepy at odd times of day, or your chronotype doesn’t seem to match up when you’re tired or energized. If that sounds like you, don’t panic. Chronotypes are more complex than they seem, and they exist on a continuum. For example, some “bears” may prefer rising earlier than others, thus falling closer to lions on the spectrum.
The point is, don’t focus too much on which chronotype you are; just make sure you are going to sleep when you feel tired every night, and try waking up at the same time every day (including weekends). If your workweek is hectic or you’re dealing with the sleep effects of shift work, try to adjust your sleep schedule accordingly so you’re still getting adequate sleep.
Though we all need sleep, we don’t all follow the same sleep schedule or have the same sleep needs. Paying attention to your sleep habits and cycles and learning more about your chronotype can help you get better control of your sleep schedule and make it easier to get healthy rest at night (and wake up feeling refreshed in the morning). To learn more about your chronotype and get better sleep, take one of the quizzes discussed above!