I have had trouble with sleep for my entire life. As a little girl, I can remember lying in bed awake, listening to my twin sister’s tinny clock radio playing the local radio station’s nighttime programming for the full hour she’d set for the sleep timer as she slept peacefully next to me, knocked out within minutes of closing her eyes. It was the loneliest feeling in the world for me. My older sister and I both had issues falling asleep as early as the rest of the family, and would spend hours reading in the bathroom or sometimes closet when we were on family vacations in single hotel rooms.
In high school, I determined I just needed less sleep than other people, being glad with four to six hours instead of the usual eight most people seemed to need. Over summers my sleep cycle would almost completely reverse itself, pushing me to stay awake later and later until I was regularly seeing dawn and sleeping in until noon or further. The last weekend of the summer, I’d stay awake from Saturday morning through to Sunday night in an attempt to “reset” and go to bed at a reasonable time so I could be up for school. My twin sister would be out the door by 6:30 in the morning throughout the school year; I’d barely get myself awake and out the door by 8am.
In college, I took a lot of naps. Eventually I attributed it to depression and the darkness of the basement room where I lived for my junior and senior years. I still had trouble getting up before 9am most days. Deep into my adulthood, I could naturally stay up very late and sleep through the morning.
Although there was something strange about my sleeping habits. I would find myself naturally awake around 5 or 6 in the morning, before dawn, ready to do something. In high school I would read my Bible and pray in a devotional before school. After college, I thought I’d been awakened by a loud train outside my apartment, or by my bunny rabbits, who would hop on the bed as the sun rose, demanding their breakfast greens. I’d often attribute it to whatever alcohol I’d had the night before, as my social life continued to revolve around bars and wine nights with my girlfriends. I haven’t relied on an alarm clock in more than a decade.
But even as my body has risen willingly on its own well before dawn and kept me up through sunrise and a few hours beyond, I have found myself tired throughout the day. I have thought this was just a natural part of aging, or of suffering from depression — fatigue is just part of the gig.
Now that I’m working for myself and don’t necessarily have a set schedule, I’ve realized that I may have a natural sleep cycle that differs from “normal”.
Circadian rhythms are the natural biorhythms that every human being has. They’re built into our brains through hormones and react to stimuli like sunlight, food, and medications. These are the natural cycles of your day, that include when you’re inclined to wake up and when you’re inclined to fall asleep. They’re what make certain people morning larks and others night owls. While you can control them to some extent through the aforementioned stimuli, everyone is born with their own set.
Recently I’ve been reading a lot about biphasic sleep, or the theory that human beings don’t naturally get all their nightly sleep in a single go. According to scientists and historians, human beings slept in phases throughout the night for generations until the advent of artificial lighting in the industrial age.
Before the age of gas lamps and electric lighting, most people’s circadian rhythms pushed them to be sleepy a few hours after dark, woke them for a few hours in the middle of the night, and then drowsed them off to sleep until the sun came up. During those few waking hours in the middle of the night, people would have sex, chat, read, write or pray — there are even books from the Middle Ages and Renaissance that instruct people on what best to do during that time.
After the gas lamp was introduced in the 17th century, people had artificial light to make it safer to stay up later, and by the early 20th century, we had all but forgotten about the perfectly natural phenomenon of biphasic sleep. But scientists have found the rhythm to pop back up in people who go camping for long periods of time in a place where they don’t have access to artificial light.
Delayed Sleep Phase
Another interesting tidbit of science I’ve been learning about is late phase sleep cycle. This is a natural circadian rhythm wherein a person finds that they get sleepy later in the evening than other people do and wake up later. These are your self-ascribed “night owls”, who have over the years been referred to as both lazy and super creative, depending on who you ask.
Another issue with those who have this delayed sleep phase cycle is that they aren’t hungry at the same times as other people are. My normal hunger hormones tell me to eat somewhere around 10:30 or 11am, much later than the breakfast time most people expect. I am generally nauseated in the morning until about lunchtime, but noon is far too late for me.
Unfortunately, because it can interfere with normal social expectations, the medical community considers this a problem, and it’s referred to as Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome. While many publications tout the dangers of being a night owl, others are noting that it’s a natural issue and that the only true harms are societal implications.
In fact, it’s quite likely that our sleep cycles are encoded in our DNA. It was no surprise to me that my recent 23andMe DNA test shows that I’m more likely to be a night owl than a morning lark. My older sister and I both got this result, while my father and twin sister were pinned as morning larks from their own DNA tests.
Why Different Sleep Cycles
When you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that members of the same tribe would have different sleep cycles. If everyone is asleep at the same time, it makes it much easier for predators or warring clans to attack. But if members of the family have different sleeping hours, there’s a likelihood that someone will be awake at any given time in the night, especially with a second sleep on the way, letting them act as a sentinel for the entire group. So the morning larks can fall asleep early while the night owls stay up and guard the campfire, then the night owls can fall asleep as the morning larks are entering their first waking time of the night.
But with the industrial revolution came required punch-in times for work, and morning larks dictated an 8am (or earlier) start time for most business activities. This means that a night owl like me who wanted to maintain a socially acceptable work life might be forced to stay awake at dawn, right when her second sleep would be starting, in order to get to work on time.
Embracing My Own Sleep Cycle
Now that I’m an adult that doesn’t have to be in an office at a set time every morning, I’m far less worried about when I get to sleep than I used to be. I’m learning to embrace my natural cycle without feeling guilty about it.
My current sleep cycle looks about like this:
12am – 1am: fall asleep
4:30 – 5:30 am (just before dawn): wake up and work
8am – 11am: second sleep
I find I can get a lot of good writing done very early in the morning, and attend to meetings with other people after I wake up in the later morning. Of course, most of the people I work with are morning larks, so it can be hard to explain to them why I was up at 6:30 responding to their email but not readily available to chat at 8:30 when they’re ready to get the business day started.
Still, instead of caving into societal expectations, I’m learning to stand up for myself. This is just who I am. Maybe now that I’m nearly 40, I can live the way I need to be my best self.