Being a night owl can be a serious obstacle for success in work and life. Why does everything have to start so god damn EARLY?! That horrible feeling of hearing the alarm in the distance, calling you to leave your sweet dreams, when your exhausted body cries for mercy, since you once again went to bed “too late” according to societies standards….
Wheater you’re a night owl or “lark” is often an important part of your identity, and I once read an interview with a lady running a dating company who claimed this was one of the more important things to get right for a successfull match making. Funnily, though, in almost every couple I know one is an night owl and one an early riser – and until quite recently this was the case also in my own relationship.
As I write this, it’s a quarter to seven in the morning, and I’m dresses and had breakfast too. If someone had told me a couple of years ago, however, that I could become a morning person, I would have laughed at them.
For most of my life, I used to be so exhausted in the morning I once tried to shut down my alarm clock with the light switch of my bedstand lamp. My morning history is full of anekdotes about me pouring youghurt in my tea or falling asleep at the breakfast table. I could never keep a job that required me to start early for long since the sleep deprivation would casuse my whole life to collapse, and as my young kids slowly where getting closer to school age I’d started to worry about how I ever would manage to get up to get them to school on time.
And it wasn’t because I didn’t TRY to turn this vicious cycle around. But if I went to bed early, together with my early rising husband for example, I would either not fall asleep at all, or I would wake up after 4 hours, and then be AWAKE for 4 hours, causing me to be ready for bed again when I should be getting ready for the day. So at some point I decided it made more sence to go to sleep at midnight (or later) and have a good, even if too short, night´s sleep.
As the notorious night owl I was, I ‘ve often fought for the honour of my kin. “It’s not that we’re lazy”, I’d say. “We’re just wired differently. We get our best work done in the evenings. ” I’d use to explain this with a home spun evolutionary theory: The predators are most active at dawn and dusk , it makes sence that some of us should be awake in the early morning hours and some at night, to keep the fire alive and watch out for dangers.
Now, whether or not that was true in the stone age, todays society definitely favors the survival of the early risers.
So what can you do, if you wish to have an easier time going to sleep in the evening and waking up in the morning?
While all those advice you’ve probably heard about relaxing activities in the evening like drinking lavender tea or taking a bath etc. might help a little, the surprising key to change for me had to do with breakfast.
Why breakfast matters for your sleep
I first learned how our breakfast habits can influence our sleep patterns from Datis Kharrazian’s super interesting book “Why isn’t my brain working”. According to Dr Kharrazian our circadian rhythm have a lot to do with the fluctuations of the stress hormone cortisol. In order to make us wake up the body is supposed to release cortisol in the morning. This makes us alert and awake and ready to start the day.
If you find yourself groggy and slow in the morning – and, very important clue, if you feel a bit nauseous and the thought of breakfast makes you feel a little bit sick, you are very likely to suffer from too little cortisol. It’s a common consequence of too much stress that our adrenal glands get exhausted and fail to produce enough of this important but easily over-used substance.
People who suffer from this “morning sickness” often skip breakfast altogether, or go for something sweet and easy, like the “continental” coffee or tea with toast that I’ve fed myself for something like two decades. The sugar/carbs and caffeine helps to kick-start your body, and all seems well. But later in the day, you’ll pay.
Feeding your system with energy in the form of easy accessible carbs and caffeine (as one of caffeine’s stimulating effects comes from helping to release glucose from the cells into the bloodstream and so increases the blood sugar levels) will actually increase the stress on your adrenals, and so, in the long run, make your problem worse.
Second, you’re likely to have an energy crash within two hours after eating, as a result of eating food with too low GI (glycemic index), typically leaving you with an urge for MORE sweat and easy. It’s kind of like trying to keep a fire burning with nothing but small sticks. It will catch fire easily, but very soon burn out.
What to do instead?!
In order to turn your circadian rhythm around, Dr Kharrazian suggests you start the day with a very low carb and high protein breakfast within 30 minutes of rising. This could be something like an omelet or some beef jerky with vegetables and coconut oil. Important is to eat this even if you really feel like you don’t want to.
I used to have a pretty strong morning nausea in spite of being neither hung over or pregnant, but just a few mornings force feeding myself with omelet was enough to change this. After a few days I was happily eating dinner leftover like meatballs and veggies for breakfast as my husband just couldn’t believe his eyes. (Today I go for a “Bulletproof” coffee with butter, coconut oil and protein in the form of collagen powder instead, but that’s getting lost in the details)
Why it works
First of all, changing from high carb to high protein and fat meals in the morning will reduce the stress from the spiking and then rapidly plunging blood sugar levels on your adrenals.
Second, the protein (the amino acid tryptophan to be exact)) is a very important building block to help your body produce serotonin, which in turn is to transform to melatonin during the day in order to make you sleepy in the evening.
To stick to regular low-carb high fat/protein meals during the day helps to keep your blood sugar levels on an even level, with the additional benefits of reducing the stress on the adrenals, and finally to eat a small high protein/fat snack in the evening helps keeping them on a good level also during sleep, reducing the risk for waking up in the middle of the night (I’m planning to write another article about the reason for waking up in the middle of the night, so stay tuned! But I can already reveal it has a lot to do with the very same cortisol levels we are discussing today)
Add on other things to restore your adrenal glands, like generally reduce and better handle stress by for example practicing mindfulness, learning to meditate and getting a healthy exercise habit and your night owl tendencies might just disappear, as happened to me.
Other things that can help improve your sleep and waking-patterns:
- taking a bio-accessible form of magnesium like for example magnesium citrate and/or krill oil in the evening
- taking a strong dosis of fluid vitamin D3 in the morning (I had amazing results with 4000 IE/day, but some recommend up to 10 times that dose)
- make sure you get some daylight into your eyes in the morning to stop the secretion of the sleepy-making hormone melatonin – and to dampen the light in the evening to help the melatonin get started again. ( Here the technique can help: We use an alarm clock with a lamp that slowly gets brighter in the morning, starting 30 minutes from wake-up time, and many swear by light dimmers or red-light bulbs or using red-toned glasses a few hours before bed time)
- avoiding screen time a few hours before bedtime. The blue light from most screens have a very disturbing effect on melatonin secretion and will make you more awake in the evening. A blue-light filter app will like f.lux will help a bit, but remember that most computer/phone activities are also very stimulating for the brain, and will not help you to wind down. Reading something not too exciting is my best wind-down trick, and fortunately when I turn down the light on my Kindle it seems to have no power to make me more awake.
- Make yourself ready for bed at least one hour before bed-time. If you’re already in pyjamas and have brushed your teeth it’s much easier to go to bed once you feel that sleepiness coming. (for years and years I would get a second wind after brushing my teeth and washing my face, making sure I was awake for at least one more hour)
- Set a bed-time alarm. It sounds silly, but since my alarm goes off at 10 pm every night I’m much less likely to get stuck in the sofa into the wee hours.