A good night’s sleep can feel like an ever-elusive goal that we keep chasing. From supplements to mouth taping to sleep syncing, there’s no shortage of shut-eye solutions that promise a solid snooze fest. But if you’ve tried everything under the sun to no avail (and have the dark circles to show for it), there may be one major factor you’ve overlooked to get to dreamland: your chronotype. Why does knowing your chronotype matter, and how can you use it to ensure a sound slumber? I asked Dr. Jade Wu, a board-certified behavioral sleep medicine psychologist and researcher at Duke University School of Medicine, author of Hello Sleep: The Science and Art of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications, and sleep expert for Hatch, to impart her sleep wisdom. Needless to say, she’s well-versed on how to put those counting sheep to bed.
MEET THE EXPERT
Dr. Jade Wu, PhD, DBSM is a board-certified behavioral sleep specialist specializing in adult insomnia and sleep problems during pregnancy and the postnatal period. In the clinic, she uses evidence-based methods and a collaborative approach to help people restore sleep health.
What is a chronotype, and why is it important for optimal sleep?
“A person’s chronotype is their natural predisposition to sleep and wake at certain times,” explained Dr. Wu. You’ve probably referred to yourself as an “early bird” or “night owl” but didn’t know you were identifying your chronotype. “Some people are ‘morning larks,’ and they naturally wake up early in the morning and get sleepy early in the evening; their bodies and brains function best when they follow this pattern,” Dr. Wu said. That one friend who is up at 5 a.m. with a pep in their step? A morning lark, hands down. “Some people are ‘night owls,’ and they are biologically hardwired to fall asleep late and wake up late—it’s not just their preference or personality that drives this,” Dr. Wu continued. Chronotypes aren’t black and white. Rather, they exist on a spectrum just like height. Dr. Wu pointed out that while some people are extreme morning larks and others are extreme night owls, most of us are somewhere in between.
But why does your chronotype matter for catching Zzzs? (To learn how your chronotype affects productivity, click here.) Dr. Wu cited that sleeping in alignment with your chronotype is best for your sleep and overall health and functioning. “For example, a night owl who tries to live as a morning person some of the time may very well develop insomnia, social jetlag, and other sleep problems that lead to worse mood, worse brain functioning, and even higher risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disorders. If you’re able to consistently sleep and wake according to your chronotype, your sleep-wake circadian rhythms are functioning at their best, which means better sleep quality and overall health.” On the other hand, if you only occasionally sleep according to your chronotype (think: you wake up early on weekdays but sleep in late on weekends), the inconsistency confuses your circadian system and makes all your biological processes harder to function at their best. The worst part? Your sleep quality suffers.
How do you determine your chronotype?
Dr. Wu conveyed that we naturally fall into our chronotype pattern if there are no external barriers. Picture this: You’re on vacation for three whole months with no enforced schedule and nobody to judge you (where do I sign up?). What sleep pattern would you naturally fall into? If you’d be waking up very early without an alarm on the reg, and you couldn’t sleep in even if you wanted to, consider yourself a morning lark. But if your bedtime and the time you get up drift later and later, and you finally feel like you’re getting enough sleep when you allow yourself to do so, you’re looking at a night owl.
If that thought experiment doesn’t do the trick, you can try various tests to figure out your chronotype, such as the Morning-Eveningness Questionnaire (MEQ) and the Munich ChronoType Questionnaire (MCTQ). Each method determines chronotype from a slightly different angle, with the MCTQ focusing on actual wake and sleep times, whereas the MEQ asks questions covering a range of activities like meal and exercise times. Or, if you’re on the sleep tracker train, get your money’s worth by using the sleep-wake pattern insight that your Apple Watch or Oura Ring provides.
How do you use your chronotype to optimize your sleep?
Figuring out your chronotype and living accordingly is a chef’s kiss for your well-being and shut-eye, but let’s face it: Sometimes life (read: work deadlines, family obligations, social events) makes it nearly impossible, especially for late risers. “Society is really designed for morning larks, and night owls can struggle to live by a morning person’s schedule,” Dr. Wu shared. The good news is you can still use your chronotype to get the beauty sleep you need using Dr. Wu’s three approaches:
Align your daily schedule with your chronotype
Get your sleep schedule to be as close to your natural chronotype as possible—your sleep quality depends on it. Say you’re a night owl, and you naturally want to sleep from 1:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. Since that’s not realistic for your 9-5, try to hit the hay at 12:00 a.m. and get up at 8:00 a.m. instead. That seemingly small difference can be a game-changer.
Stick with the same sleep pattern
Once you’ve established a sleep schedule that works well for your chronotype (and obligations), follow through with it every day (yes, even when it’s not a school night). The more fickle you are with your schedule, the more your sleep and health pay the price. “Staying consistent, even on a schedule that is not ideal, will make it feel easier and allow your circadian rhythms to function better,” Dr. Wu expressed.
Get vitamin D exposure first thing
The best things in life are free, so they say. Case in point: sunlight. And getting a lot of it in the a.m. (think: going outdoors) but not too much light in the evening (read: limiting screen time) is your one-way ticket to snooze city. “Light is the strongest cue for your circadian system, so make sure your brain knows when it’s day versus when it’s night, and you’ll have an easier time adjusting to a non-ideal schedule,” Dr. Wu encouraged.
Can you change your chronotype?
The short answer? According to Dr. Wu, yes and no. While you can shift your chronotype using a few behavioral and biological hacks (more to come on that), it’s hard to change it for good—but the body is always changing as we age. “Your body will always be wanting to revert back to what your natural chronotype is, so you’ll have to keep working at it if you want to change it,” Dr. Wu advised. “But chronotype tends to change as we get older, so even if you’re a night owl now, you will likely become more of a morning lark later in life.” Keep reading for tools to trick your body into changing its sleep-wake cycle.
Simply put, if you expose yourself to bright light first thing in the morning, you will become more of a morning person; if you do so at night, you’ll become more of a night owl, Dr. Wu said. Keep in mind light can take the form of sunlight, a light therapy lamp, or screens.
Meal and physical activity timing
“If you eat more and move more early in the day, it will help you become more of a morning person,” Dr. Wu affirmed. “It’s like a double whammy of strong cues for your circadian system that it’s time to start the day early.” To become more of a morning lark, eat a heavier meal at breakfast and lunch and fit in a workout during the first half of the day. To become more of a night owl, eat a heavier dinner or move your body in the early evening (but not too late so it doesn’t mess with sleep).
“Consistently taking a tiny dose of melatonin (0.5 mg) several hours before your usual bedtime will shift your chronotype earlier, and taking it in the morning will shift your chronotype later,” Dr. Wu described. However, she warned that the supplement can sometimes backfire and make your sleep worse, so consult your doctor before use.