Kelley R. Shackelford, MD
Are early birds healthier than night owls? One study suggests that being a morning person is associated with better mental health, potentially leading to greater well-being and lowering the risk of depression. Another study found that night owls face a 10 percent higher risk of death.
Not a morning person? You can change that. While there are some genetics at play, a big part of when you wake up stems from the routines you’ve developed over the years. With some tweaks to your daily habits, you can start rising earlier — and improving your health in the process.
How Sleep Affects Your Mental and Physical Health
When you get a good night’s sleep, it feels like the stars align all day. You’ve got energy. You’re in a good mood. You can focus. Your memory is sharp. But when you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, you feel like you’re dragging through the day. You feel sluggish. You’re irritable. You struggle to concentrate. And you’re in a mental fog so thick you can’t even remember what you ate for breakfast.
According to the University of Michigan School of Public Health, sleep is critical to every process in your body. Sleep affects:
- Mental and physical functioning
- Immune system function
- Ability to ward off disease
- Chronic disease risk
- Research from the National Institutes of Health points out that sleep:
- Balances energy
- Affects alertness and mood
- Impacts reflexes, and
- Boosts focus and problem-solving abilities
- In a nutshell, sleep touches every aspect of your well-being.
Guidelines for Better Sleep
So, how much sleep do you need? While this varies as you age, teens need 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night and adults need about 7 to 9 hours a night.
Practice good sleep hygiene to ensure you feel rested in the morning.
- Avoid naps. Taking a nap too late in the day or for too long (more than one hour) can disrupt your sleep pattern and make it difficult to fall asleep when it’s bedtime.
- Exercise 4 to 6 hours before bedtime. Exercise can improve sleep quality by helping us fall asleep faster. Rigorous exercise within two hours of bedtime can be problematic, as exercise creates endorphins that can keep some people awake and energized past bedtime.
- Limit alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. These substances can all disrupt sleep patterns. Nicotine and caffeine are both stimulants that can keep you awake when you should be sleeping.
- Avoid checking the time at night. This increases your brain activity and actually keeps you awake longer. Your body knows when it’s time for bed.
- Limit screen time. Turn off electronic devices an hour before bed. This includes any blue light-emitting devices such as phones, computers, tablets and TVs.
- Limit food and drink a couple of hours before bedtime. Certain foods and drinks can affect your sleep (think spicy foods and coffee). But too many beverages late in the day can increase your need to use the bathroom during the night.
- Establish a bedtime routine. Create a to-do list for the following day. Take a warm bath. Drink a cup of chamomile tea. Read a book. Listen to a meditation. Go to bed at the same time every night.
- Eliminate distractions. Remove anything noisy, such as a ticking clock. Keep the room dark. Turn bright clocks toward the wall and cover glowing power buttons on TVs and DVD players.
- Prepare your sleep environment. Adjust the temperature to where you’re comfortable. If your bedroom is too hot or too cold, get a fan or multiple blankets. Keep whatever you need (such as a baby monitor) nearby so you don’t have to get out of bed.
How To Become a Morning Person
Your circadian rhythm is like an internal clock, regulating your sleep/wake cycles. Whether you’re a shift worker, travel across time zones or just want to wake up earlier, you can sleep-train yourself. Just know that it could take three to four weeks to see a change.
Try these sleep-training tips to help your body adjust.
- Shift your bedtime. If you’re over 18, you’ll want to aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. Count backward from your ideal wake time to arrive at your target bedtime. Slowly shift your bedtime earlier, in 15-minute increments, to let your body adjust.
- Incorporate a bedtime routine. Start with some of the ideas above, choosing activities that calm your body and clear your mind. Stick to this routine every night.
- Devise a morning routine. Leave the blinds open so natural light brightens your room. Do a full-body stretch. Brush your teeth. Take a shower.
- Schedule something to look forward to. Say a prayer or affirmation to start your day off on a positive note. Take the dog for a walk. Write in a gratitude journal. Read the newspaper. Grab a cup of coffee and sit on your porch. Adopt a seize the day mentality.
Dealing with Sleep Issues
If you’re trying all these suggestions and still struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. There might be underlying issues that affect your ability to sleep, such as restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, frequent urination, insomnia, coughing, night sweats, or snoring.