Night Owl Syndrome: Do You Have It?

Florence Cardinal Health Guide May 09, 2007
  • Are you a morning lark? Do you wake up bright and early, bursting with energy to greet the sunrise, and retire early in the evening soon after the sun goes down? Or are you a night owl? Do you stay up until the wee hours of the morning, and find it almost impossible to wake up in time to get to work?

     

    People suffering from DSPS (Delayed sleep phase syndrome) are sometimes called "night owls." They function best late at night and feel drowsy and lethargic during the day. Circadian rhythm keeps the body alert during daylight hours and helps it to relax when night falls. For those who suffer from DSPS, the circadian rhythm is in a complete reversal to what is considered normal.

     

    Even when retiring at an hour that feels comfortable to them (in the early hours of the morning) they may still experience sleep onset insomnia and lie awake for thirty minutes or more before they can drop off to sleep.

     

    In a recent study authored by Jason C. Ong, PhD, and colleagues at Stanford University, night owls report more symptoms of insomnia, even when they can compensate for their late night tendencies by spending more time in bed.

     

    "Our findings indicate that further research should investigate the relationship between circadian rhythms and insomnia, especially with the severity of the 'night owl' group," said Ong. "These factors may serve to perpetuate the insomnia disorder, and might be particularly important to consider when treating this subgroup of insomniacs."

     

    Delayed sleep phase syndrome is a very real disorder. It is not caused by deliberate behavior, and it isn't easy to cope with. DSPS is a disorder of the circadian rhythm system. Circadian rhythm is what keeps your body in time with the rest of the world, and when it malfunctions, it messes up your sleep patterns, and your life.

     

    Sleeping pills have little or no effect in combating the inability to fall asleep. Neither does meditation. Melatonin or other natural sleep inducers have been successful in a few cases. Melatonin is a natural hormone secreted by the pineal gland and does promote sleep. The pineal gland produces serotonin during daylight hours. When night comes, it produces melatonin and that triggers the signal to sleep. So secretion of melatonin is controlled by light and dark cycles. In people with DSPS, this natural function does not work as it should, and thus sleep and wake cycles are, at least to some extent, reversed. Although melatonin is sold in many places as a food supplement, it is a hormone and should be used under the supervision of a doctor.

     

    Daytime naps also help, but napping is not feasible if you are trying to hold down a job.

     

    Chronotherapy, which involves the systematic delaying of bedtime by three-hour increments, is sometimes helpful, but this method has not proven successful for all sufferers of DSPS. Some have been unable to stick to this schedule. Others habitually return to their former sleep pattern.

  •  

    The best therapy to date for delayed sleep phase syndrome has been the use of bright lights. The circadian rhythm responds to light and darkness, as does the body's production of melatonin. This therapy has proven useful in adjusting the body clock.