Can you make yourself a morning person? And other questions we asked a sleep expert

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 (Photo by elizabeth lies on Unsplash)
(Photo by elizabeth lies on Unsplash)

Non-morning people get a bad rep. Often dismissed as lazy, life can be tough for a late riser.

While early birds are busy whizzing up a green juice, unloading the dishwasher and catching a yoga class before work, we have to cram all of life's admin into the evenings.

In the name of World Sleep Day, Adrian Williams, professor of sleep medicine, has the answer to some of our slumber-related questions.

Can you become a morning person?

The word circadian rhythm derives from the Latin "circa diem" (meaning around the day), and it refers to the body's biological processes which are subject to a roughly 24-hour cycle, the main pacemaker for which is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which sits at the base of the brain, Williams explains. These processes include the sleep/wake cycle; temperature which drops at night; cortisol levels, which are elevated in the morning to prepare us for our day; urine production, which is reduced at night; as well as melatonin production, which is secreted at night to signal to the rest of body that it is night time.

Circadian rhythms are predominantly determined by our genes, he says, which means it's difficult to change your sleep pattern permanently and become a morning person for example. The same goes for how much sleep you need, while the likes of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and former US president Donald Trump claim they get by on just four hours of kip a night, much of this is also genetically determined, he adds, so it’s not worth fighting. Ensure you’re getting sufficient amounts of rest each night - as a general rule of thumb, most experts recommend between seven and eight hours a night.

To wannabe early birds, “you can influence your body clock using exposure to light. Morning light is the establishing factor in determining circadian rhythms,” he says. So the earlier you’re exposed to light, the more likely you’ll feel sleepy earlier and go to be earlier that evening. Adopting methods such as waking up at the same time each morning – including on weekends – and avoiding using the snooze button entirely by placing your phone or alarm across the room can help to adjust your routine (even if it is only temporary).

How is a lack of sleep linked to weight gain?

Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to a number of serious health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Not getting enough sleep (less than six hours) has been associated with weight gain because of changes in the hormones which control appetite, Williams explains.

“The hormones leptin (which reduces appetite) and ghrelin (which increases it) both change in the direction of increasing appetite when we don’t sleep enough. There is a measurable effect, studies are quite clear that appetite changes based on those hormones, and even preference for food changes to fat and carbohydrate as opposed to protein. The increase in calories may only be 100 calories a day or less but many pounds over a year," he says.

Simple sleep hygiene hacks

Getting enough sleep – and ensuring that it's of a decent quality – can boost your productivity and alertness during the day and adopting some basic sleep hygiene principles may help to improve the quality of your sleep.

Williams’ sleep hygiene rules include: avoiding caffeine after 2pm, avoiding spicy food, ensuring you have a sleeping environment that's cool, dark and quiet and avoiding blue light in the evening.

"The counter to morning light is evening electronic light, if you use a phone or computer at midnight, your body will interpret that as you’ve moved to New York and it can become difficult to get to sleep," he says.

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