How To Work With Your Chronotype To Sleep Deeper & Wake Up More Energized
What if there was a system that could control your sleep, digestion, metabolism, mood, and more—and a simple way to keep it running smoothly? As it turns out, there is, and it's called the circadian rhythm.
"You want to really maximize the utility of your circadian rhythm because its whole function is to free you from worrying about your body," researcher Sofia Axelrod, Ph.D., tells mbg. As Axelrod explains, every single aspect of the body—from your temperature and alertness to digestion and bowel movements—is circadian, meaning it runs on its own clock. One of the most obvious examples of this is our sleep; every 24 hours or so, our bodies know it's time to rest up.
Axelrod studies the inner workings of our sleep circadian clocks at Rockefeller University in the lab of Michael Young, who won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery that they're actually genetic, meaning that the tendency to be more of a night owl or early bird is partially written into our genes.
"Your propensity to work at night or in the morning is not necessarily only determined by life circumstance," she explains, "but it can be it can be genetically encoded, and that is called the chronotype."
Those who have a chronotype that's longer than 24 hours naturally want to stay up later and sleep in later, while those with shorter chronotypes are happy waking up early and going to bed early. Those who have a standard chronotype, closer to 24 hours in length, fall somewhere in the middle.
The genetic component of chronotypes is important because it proves that in order to get a good night's rest, we need to work with our body's natural sleep preferences, not against them. So, in the spirit of personalized medicine, here are Axelrod's tips for finding a sleep routine that's tailor-made for your DNA.
How to work with your chronotype to sleep better.
While you can't walk into a doctor's office to quickly get your sleep chronotype tested (yet!), Axelrod notes that you probably have a pretty good idea of it already. If you think back to a recent vacation or another time you had the flexibility to set your own sleep-wake times, the schedule you landed on is an indication of your chronotype. Honoring this chronotype using the following techniques is the key to getting deep, restorative sleep:
Be strategic about light exposure.
You've probably heard that it's important to get some light exposure in the morning and keep things dark at night, and Axelrod's chronotype research really homes in on why that is. She explains it in terms of night owls (those with longer chronotypes): If your body naturally wants to stay up a little later and later each night, bright lights and screens in the evening will only reinforce this behavior and make it harder for you to fall asleep. This is why resisting the urge to hop on the computer or phone late at night is especially important for those who naturally have a longer chronotype. Light exposure and restriction have a profound effect on your circadian rhythm, making them essential elements of any healthy routine.
Line up your chronotype with your sleep pressure.
The longer we stay awake, the more our "sleep pressure," or desire to rest, builds. When our sleep chronotype matches up with our sleep pressure (i.e., when our bodies think it's time for bed and we feel tired), Axelrod explains, we can fall asleep easily. "Any sleep intervention or any advice should be geared toward optimizing both of these to work together," she says. "You don't want your circadian rhythm to tell you you're awake when you're actually super tired, and vice versa." Sleeping during roughly the same time window every day and making sure that you're sleeping long enough to actually feel energized upon waking is the key to keeping these two things synched. And Axelrod explains that, like chronotype, the amount of sleep you need each day is also genetic. You can't train yourself to need less of it!
Don't underestimate the power of the mind.
And finally, Axelrod notes, even if your sleep chronotype and sleep pressure line up perfectly, your psychology trumps it all. If you have a racing mind, you will find it difficult to fall asleep. For this reason, minimizing stress before bed is key. Whether you spend a few minutes meditating, write down your worries in a journal, or take a relaxing supplement, anything you can do to help your mental chatter before bed will help ensure that you fall asleep fast and stay asleep through the night.*
Try as you might to become less of a night owl or early morning riser, your sleep-wake patterns are partially written in your bones. Like so many aspects of health, the key to great sleep is tuning into what your body is asking you to do—and actually doing it.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.