Does quality of sleep suffer if you go from earlybird to night owl?
September 5, 2011 9:47 PM   Subscribe

SleepFilter: Does quality of sleep suffer if you go from earlybird to night owl and do most of your sleeping after midnight/in the morning? "One hour of sleep before midnight is worth 2 after." How true is this saying?

Does it change if you adjust to a very nocturnal pattern?

I was always an early bird in the UK, but since coming to Korea I've been having a late lifestyle. I was jetlagged and adjusted to some extent, but haven't bothered making myself adjust to former habits.

The reason being that I work until 10 and it's nice to have a meal and a bit of time to myself before sleeping, so I've been turning in at 12 or 1 at least and waking up 10ish.

In fact, it would be cool in the summer at least to have an even later lifestyle and stay up until the early hours. Then I get some solid time to myself, not a bit in the morning and evening taken up by meals etc., and socializing late doesn't throw me out of whack.

However, I'm worried that my quality of sleep will suffer as some people don't think it's good. Especially as I was always an early riser.

Any experiences, evidence, ways to mitigate problems etc.?

Thanks in advance if I don't get back to the thread.
posted by Not Supplied to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
This is really going to vary from person to person. Generally speaking, sleep experts tend to say there are specific hours of the day that work best for most people because there's some general biological factors involved that most people share. But even given that, not everyone is the same. I have always been more nocturnal and tend to sleep much better during the day, and I too like having the time to myself during the night. Sleeping during the day is SO SATISFYING to me, and sleeping at night usually doesn't feel as restful for me. I find it difficult to fall asleep at night unless I have exhausted myself during the day.

At the same time, if I am depressed, staying up late tends to worsen this and it's like my entire biology flips; if I start waking up early and working on something, I will be very focused and much happier. Given the complexity of all the hormones involved in sleep, it's actually possible that I have two "settings" that I swing between based on whatever external factors; I have tentatively identified that when I eat low-carb, I like waking up early morning (5AM or so, literally can't sleep longer) whereas when I don't, I like going to sleep at 5AM. I haven't followed this long enough to confirm that idea yet, but it's a complicated thing to pinpoint. For example, right now I have been especially happy, despite being nocturnal, but I am not eating low carb either. At other points I have been depressed on low-carb and not on it, nocturnal or not, etc. It's quite muddled.

Another thing to consider is plenty of people are not on a 24-hour sleep schedule, and this can cause issues. I often slip into a 25-hour sleep schedule, where I wake up an hour later every day, cumulative, and sometimes I slip into a 23-hour sleep schedule where I keep waking up an hour earlier. It's all very odd.

Point is: try what you want to try. If you find that you don't feel rested, then call off the experiment. Everyone can tell you their experiences and general data -- which isn't to say hearing those things won't be useful -- but ultimately that's what you're going to have to do anyway. You're probably not going to have disastrous results that you can never fix, you know? Anything bad that happens you can probably correct in a day or two, or a week tops.
posted by Nattie at 10:12 PM on September 5, 2011

Sleep is fascinating and even after decades of experimental research we only have a fragmented understanding of it.

Sleep has internal structure made up of two primary components: deep sleep, in which bodily processes like breathing and heartbeat slow down and the brain mainly produces slow-wave rhythms; and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is when most dreaming occurs. There are many competing explanations for what different components of sleep are supposed to accomplish. One could suggest that deep sleep promotes physical well-being and REM sleep promotes learning or memory formation or whatever, but those would be grossly irresponsible generalizations.

We do know very firmly that sleep, even a nap as short as 30 minutes, promotes certain kinds of learning — particularly, recall (probably by virtue that recall is easy to test in experiments). Curiously, memory is inhibited very strongly in REM sleep. While we sleep, we are paralyzed and amnesiac. Some people experience sleep paralysis as they fall asleep or for a few moments after waking. This is relatively common and harmless, although upsetting to those who experience it. It's probably a good thing that we largely don't remember our dreams and don't act them out in real life while we dream them.

Deep sleep and REM sleep alternate in blocks of approximately 90 minutes each. At the beginning of the night, deep sleep dominates the block. But as the night progresses, REM sleep occupies more and more of each 90 minutes. Arousal increases over the course of the 90-minute block, and we're likeliest to awake at the boundary between adjacent blocks than in the middle of one. Infants' sleep is physiologically different from the sleep of older individuals. Adult-like sleep rhythms are established in childhood and adolescence. As we age, less and less of our sleep is deep sleep, and more and more of our sleep is either REM sleep or a borderline "shallow sleep" state. Sleep fragmentation and decline in sleep quality are considered to be major contributors to loss of cognitive acuity in advanced age.

It is possible to accumulate "sleep debt" by sleeping less than is optimal for you. Furthermore, it is possible to accumulate sleep debt in deep sleep and REM sleep independently (this has been demonstrated using creative and remarkably unpleasant experiments in which sleepers are closely monitored and selectively awoken by experimenters). Sleep debt obviously affects cognition in lots of ways: alertness, response time, memory, learning, mood, pretty much everything is either altered or impaired.

Sleep debt can push bipolar sufferers into a manic state, and it can make depression worse. In fact, disturbed sleep is a major component of clinical depression, and there are even theories that conceptualize depression as being primarily rooted in a sleep disorder. It has been demonstrated that extreme sleep deprivation can kill small animals (rats), but humans don't seem to suffer any long-term ill effects from it even under the most extreme circumstances.

Sleep is regulated by many interrelated factors that contribute to sleep quantity and quality. One can hand-wave a lot of these factors away by saying that sleep is regulated by the body's "internal clock," but that would only be pushing the question back a step. Yes, sleep is regulated by circadian rhythms, but those rhythms are organized using complicated feedback mechanisms in the brain. In particular, there is a feedback loop with dopamine and acetylcholine that seems to regulate sleep and arousal, although there are other cycles that depend on other neurotransmitters like GABA and serotonin. Experiments with people in underground laboratories show that sleep schedule can be shifted about in arbitrary ways, but that sleepers establish a roughly 24-hour schedule even in the absence of real day and night.

However, day and night function as reference points for the circadian rhythm. Natural sunlight is the zeitgeber that regularizes your internal clock — we even have special sensory receptors for this specific purpose. Sunlight mainly seems to affect the body by changing the production of melatonin, which acts like a general sleep regulator.

The effect of sunlight on the circadian rhythms is one of the main reasons why SAD and other kinds of depression are sometimes treated using light therapy and daylight lamps. However, daylight can also disorder your sleep if you try to keep a "night owl" routine, because it will trigger increased arousal and more REM sleep, even if you are in the early phases of sleep. People who are interested in lucid dreaming are often encouraged to sleep late into the morning, when conditions for high cognitive arousal and a high proportion of REM sleep create optimal conditions for intense dreaming.

All this to say that you can probably get perfectly restful sleep if you shift your daily schedule a little later, or even much later. The main components of sleep hygiene for you would be to get adequate, uninterrupted sleep (7-8 hours) and to minimize sunlight and changes of light in the room where you sleep, by using heavy shades or something similar. At the same time, it is also important that you still see adequate sunlight occasionally, to avoid having your sleep cycle become entirely unmoored from the normal day/night cycle. In any event, you'll almost certainly be fine, since you're not asking about any particularly grievous disruptions to your sleep pattern. You'd be much more likely to experience unpleasant effects of sleep deprivation if you had someone wake you up every hour (as has been done to numerous participants in sleep studies).

Sorry, that was way too much rambling about sleep from someone who's still awake at 1:30AM on a weeknight.
posted by Nomyte at 10:44 PM on September 5, 2011 [259 favorites]

I think the adage comes about because generally, human beings need 7-9 hours sleep, but there weren't many jobs 50 years ago that meant you could get out of bed at 9AM. One had to be in bed before midnight simply to get enough sleep.

Your body clock doesn't know that midnight has arrived, though. If you're not around artificial lighting, it might know that it's dark out, but not exactly what time it is. I find that as long as I get enough sleep, it doesn't matter what time I get it. I might nap during the day for a couple of hours, then not get to sleep until 2AM, then get up at 8AM. And I can function perfectly well on that. I don't think that sleep is more valuable because of some arbitrary time limit on when to get it. It's probably more valuable when you're tired, whenever that might be.
posted by Solomon at 11:33 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I hope that comment of Nomyte's get's sidebarred, it's one of the most straightforward ways of explaining sleep I've come across in recent years. (I sat on a sleep-inducing committee discussing medical on-call and it's impact on decision making)

Personally, I did this pattern you're describing during a year in Spain, although I had to get up at 7 am, but I learned the value of a brief 1hr nap in the afternoon (siesta established itself for a reason!)

I routinely slept from 1.30am to 7am, and from 2-3pm and even though it was less sleep than I was used to, I rarely noticed I was tired. I also think it allows you to better digest your late supper!
posted by Wilder at 3:45 AM on September 6, 2011

In my personal experience, that adage is nonsense. I am and have always been a night owl. I get my best work done when it's dark and everyone else is sleeping. And when I say "night owl" I don't mean I go to bed at 2. I mean I go to bed at sunrise. And this is the only time in my life I have ever felt rested on a regular basis.

I can do this now because I work on my own schedule. But when I had an 8-5 job for two years, I never ever got used to the early rising. I would cry in the shower in the morning because I couldn't get enough sleep and it was so horrible to have to wake up at what might be 10 PM for a normal person and be expected to do a decent day's work. So my experience may well not be all that useful to you.

In any case, as stated above, your body doesn't care that much about clock-time. Midnight is a construct, not a natural phenomenon. If you're more comfortable going to sleep later, then why worry about what People Say? You're the best judge of what works for you.

I am writing this at 4:55 AM and trying to get tired as I do so.
posted by Because at 4:55 AM on September 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

I guess that everybody's different on this, but my experience has been that the sleep I get if I go to bed really late or if I try to sleep during the day just isn't that satisfying. If I regularly go to bed at 2:00 a.m., say, and sleep for 8 hours every night, I'm never as alert when I'm awake as I would be if I went to bed at 10:00 p.m. and slept 8 hours. And when I worked the graveyard shift, it seemed that the sleep I got during the day was never that deep and I felt tired all the time. I don't know if this can be helped with blackout shades, though. Quite apart from any physiological issues, there are practical problems with sleeping during the day; it's a lot noisier outside, for one thing, the phone will ring, etc.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 8:44 AM on September 6, 2011

Shift workers have dealt with non-standard sleep hours for years. I've worked second and third shift jobs for years at a time, partly for shift differential pay, and partly because I just liked the hours, and the relative freedom from upper management. Getting off third shift in the summer at 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. is pretty nice - you can play 18 holes of par 3 in the cool of the morning by 10:00 a.m., or go fishing for a couple hours, have a nice brunch, and drift off into a nice late afternoon nap, that you wake up from about an hour before you go to work.

And really, that's the key, I've found, to managing sleep on shifted schedules. Get up an hour before you go to work, like most people do on "normal" day schedules. Go to work, work, and when you get off, get something to eat, and do what you'd do if you were working days (recreate, do laundry, get your car fixed, walk the dog, fight with your SO, etc.). So long as your shifted schedule isn't running against a "normal" schedule for many other people in the same household/living situation, it's not particularly stressful, once you've made your biological adjustment to the new schedule, which might take a week to 10 days. One thing you do have to manage in family situations is the expectation that, because you're "off" during the "day," that it is easier for you to run all the errands, take the kids to the doctor, get them to/from school, do the shopping, etc. Most people can't get off at 8 in the morning, and do stuff until 4 or 5 p.m., and still get enough rest to be alert at work on third shift.

But, whatever you do, don't get involved in doing what my Mother did, working for the Federal government, which was working shifting schedules every week. As in Tues. 9-5, Wed. noon-8, Thur. 4 p.m. to midnight, Fri. Mid. to 8 a.m., Sat. off, Sunday 9-5, Mon. off. That kind of schedule really screws with both your physiology and your psychology, and I'm convinced it contributed to a number of long term health problems my Mother, and so many of her co-workers, later developed.
posted by paulsc at 2:12 AM on September 7, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks. I think I'm gonna blackout my room and kind of let nature take it's course. See what sleep pattern emerges. I'll post an update if it's interesting.
posted by Not Supplied at 6:31 AM on September 7, 2011

Fascinating comment, Nomyte.

But is it true that no one suffers from long-term sleep deprivation? I thought that Fatal Familial Insomnia showed that humans can't survive without sleep.
posted by crookedneighbor at 12:58 PM on September 7, 2011

...but humans don't seem to suffer any long-term ill effects from it even under the most extreme circumstances.

I have a book called "Sleep Thieves" that, among other things, strongly suggests this portion of Nomyte's otherwise fantastic comment to be false. Nomyte, do you have a cite? I'd be interested if so.
posted by davejay at 1:16 AM on September 8, 2011

Or, uh, what crookedneighbor said. Heh.
posted by davejay at 1:17 AM on September 8, 2011

I messaged crookedneighbor earlier with this response:
Thanks for your question about fatal familiar insomnia.

FFI is an extremely rare neurodegenerative disease. In the majority of cases, the disease has a genetic basis and is inheritable, hence the word "familial" in its name. The mutation that is the root of the disease results in the production of misfolded proteins, which stick together and form plaques in a brain region called the thalamus.

Among its many functions, the thalamus is responsible for producing "sleep spindles," a special pattern of brain activity that marks the boundary between shallow "twilight-state" sleep (also called stage I sleep) and deeper sleep (stages II, III, and IV). This thalamic rhythm seems to reflect sensory "jamming" that puts you to sleep and maintains you in that state.

FFI makes the thalamus deteriorate, making it unable to block sensory activity effectively. This is the main reason why victims of FFI eventually become unable to fall asleep. As far as the scientific community knows, it's the brain degeneration that eventually kills the victim, not the lack of sleep (although, given that the disease is so rare, it's rather hard to tell with certainty).

You are right in the sense that sleep disturbance can be the sign of an underlying disease process. However, many examples of prolonged sleep deprivation have been described, from participants in controlled studies, to students, to train operators who have historically worked marathon shifts, to medical residents, to game show participants. Although sleep deprivation results in severe and progressive impairment, everyone recovers with no observable aftereffects in a matter of days.
I can look up and send you some academic references on sleep deprivation, once I have some free time.
posted by Nomyte at 6:25 AM on September 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Possibly a bit of a tangent, but related:

As nomyte said, some have suggested that REM sleep helps with memory processing and retention. I'm not a sleep expert, but I am someone who has made the transition from "sleep deprived" to "good sleep" a couple times, and noticed something that may lend some weight to that; I definitely was feeling more "in a fog" with less sleep, but was chalking that up to exhaustion rather than wonky memory. But I noticed something interesting when I started getting fuller sleep again -- for a week or two, it seemed I was having more frequent dreams.

From what I read after experiencing that, it seems that if you do go through a phase of sleep deprivation, your body does indeed try to put itself into a REM state more frequently to compensate -- rather than trying to go into REM once an hour, it'll try once ever 45 minutes, say. (I'm pulling that frequency totally out of my butt just to give an example.) That seems to indicate that whatever it is that REM does, it must be kind of important.

This also may mean that you'll have some really wacked-out dreams for a couple weeks while you're adjusting to a more normal sleep schedule again, so that's also fun.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:34 AM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

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