After reading John Medina’s book, 12 Brain Rules, and William DeMent’s The Promise of Sleep, I began to see sleep as an important way to maintain optimum health.
Medina tells us that people fall into three kinds of sleepers: Larks, Hummingbirds and Night Owls. Dement says that adults need 7 to 10 hours of sleep per day. Children, depending on their age, need 10 to 13 hours per day.
Larks often get up before 6 a.m. and report feeling more alert and productive before lunch. Breakfast is usually listed as their favorite meal. Ten percent of the population are larks.
Night owls make up 20 percent of the population while reporting being most alert around 6 p.m. and having their highest productivity in the late evening. Dinner is their favorite meal and they rarely want to go to bed before 3 a.m., or get up before 10 a.m.
Hummingbirds make up the other 70 percent of our world and cover the spectrum of waking and sleeping hours between the lark and night owls.
Since I’m a lark — early to bed, early to rise — I’ve always wondered why some people who tend to be chronically late or tired, just don’t go to bed earlier or get up earlier. Most of my life I’ve thought it was a matter of self-discipline. Perhaps, instead, our sleep habits reflect a built-in biological device to make sure that someone in our community or “tribe” is always awake and on “guard.”
It may be that humans are designed to work in shifts and that’s the reason 20 percent of us are night owls, meaning people who prefer going to bed as the sun, and the larks, are getting up.
As we look at children in our classrooms who tend to fall asleep during the school day and who appear to become more alert after lunch, 20 percent of the population would translate into being five night owl children out of a classroom of 25. In a school of 600 students that translates to 120 students — four to five classrooms. With a million people, we could have a city of 200,000 night owls.
Most teenagers tend to be night owls to some degree. Teens also need more sleep than an elementary-age child. Circadian rhythms in teens tend to be off the normal 24 hour cycle by around one hour, meaning that a teen has a sleep cycle that is continually changing from lark, to hummingbird, to night owl status, every 24 days. It’s amazing that any of us make it to adulthood.
In our world, night owl adults can choose work or college classes to fit their natural biorhythms. Night owl children, though, may struggle through their school days having trouble focusing, attending to the tasks at hand and keeping their sleep deprived selves under control. Loss of sleep affects attention, executive function, working memory, mood, the ability to work with numbers, use of logic and motor dexterity.
Research shows that night owl adults who try to fit into an 8 to 5 world suffer ill health affects, such as a higher incidence of high blood pressure, obesity, a weakened immune system and other health issues related to sleep deprivation.
Is it time to think about creating systems that take into account these different natural sleep cycles? Could many of our chronic health issues be related to being a night owl, or living in a night owl family and not being a night owl, or some combination of lark, hummingbird and night owl sleep habits?
What we do know: Restful sleep is important.Don’t snooze and we all lose.