Night Owl Syndrome: Do You Have It?

by Florence Cardinal Patient Expert

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 delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) are sometimes called night owls. They function best late at night and often feel drowsy and lethargic during the day. The circadian rhythm keeps the body alert during daylight hours and helps it to relax when night falls. For those with DSPS, the circadian rhythm runs on a later schedule and this leads to a natural desire to fall asleep later and wake up later compared to those with a more typical sleep/wake cycle.

Unfortunately, even when individuals with DSPS go to bed very late at night (typically in the early hours of the morning), they may still experience sleep onset insomnia and lie awake for 30 minutes or longer before they can drop off to sleep.

Are night owls more likely to suffer from insomnia?

A 2007 study authored by Jason C. Ong, PhD, and colleagues at Stanford University, found that night owls reported more symptoms of insomnia, even when they were able to 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.”

Treating DSPS without pills

Due to the relationship between circadian rhythms and insomnia, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) may be helpful. CBT-I also helps to identify and correct dysfunctional sleep-related behaviors and thoughts — a strategy that can strengthen the sleep/wake cycle.

Can melatonin help you fall asleep earlier?

Melatonin is a natural hormone secreted by the pineal gland and helps the body transition into sleep mode. 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.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Biological Rhythms found that individuals with DSPS did not have the same melatonin profiles compared to normally timed good sleepers. For those with DSPS, the rise in melatonin levels associated with sleep onset were delayed by approximately three hours. This suggests that melatonin supplements may be helpful.

If you decide to try melatonin supplements, you should speak with your doctor first since there is still no consensus when it comes to dosage levels or dosage timing. It has been suggested that 0.5 mg of melatonin taken roughly 10 to 12 hours before the average midpoint of sleep (or six to eight hours before the average sleep onset time) may lead to a 90 minute correction in the body clock.

For melatonin to help it needs to be taken regularly and consistently. Setting a reminder alarm can help.

Light therapy for DSPS

Finally, light therapy lamps may help to get the body clock back on track. Exposure to 10,000 lux of light for between 30 and 60 minutes as soon as you wake may help advance the body clock — and this could make it easier to fall asleep at an earlier hour the following night.

Florence Cardinal
Meet Our Writer
Florence Cardinal

Florence wrote for HealthCentral as patient expert for Sleep Disorders.