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. 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, PhD, 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, 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 the PER3 gene. If 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 a 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 naturally wake up early. 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 naturally stay up later and sleep later. They’re just starting to drift off when Lions are waking up.
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 chonotype? 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.
In summary, how do chronotypes work?
Many of our past articles have discussed circadian rhythms and our natural sleep-wake cycle, but our chronotype dictates an individual’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 dependant on genetic, environmental, and age-related factors. Your chronotype influences hormone levels, metabolic function, and body temperature, to name a few. While we cannot actively change our chronotype, our 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 dictated by your PER3 gene and influences 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 body’s production of melatonin. For example, morning people may experience a more rapid decline in melatonin levels than somebody who’s a later riser. That’s not to say a late riser’s melatonin levels never deplete, it just means they deplete slower than somebody who defines themselves as an “early bird.”
When our chronotypes contradict our natural sleep-wake cycles 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 your sleep latency and inertia.
While these tests are the most thorough and regarded as the best for determining chronotypes, they can only be issued and analyzed by sleep doctors. If you’re looking for an online quiz, we suggest heading over to Dr. Breuss’s website—thepowerofwhenquiz.com—to take his personalized chronotype quiz.
How to use your knowledge of chronotypes 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 consistently 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.