Can a night owl become a morning person? A Slate experiment.

Health and medicine explained.
June 13 2008 4:26 PM

Can a Night Owl Become a Morning Person?

A Slate experiment.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

When I told my friends I had found a way to transform myself into a morning person, they responded in one of two ways. The night people leaned in as if I were about to reveal the location of a stash of pirate gold. The morning people simply regarded me with pity and wonder. "I just don't understand why it's so hard," said one friend, a Danish medical student. "I can get up anytime I want."

This sort of smugness is prevalent among morning people, who count among their ranks Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, nearly every American president, and even Jesus. (See Mark 1:35: "And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.") Night people are stuck with psychopaths like Adolf Hitler and Juan Arreola, the guy in Pennsylvania who nearly killed his girlfriend's 2-year-old last year, explaining to a judge, "I'm not a morning person."

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I'd always been a night owl, but for years I'd longed to defect to the other side. In my fantasies, I was a Fortune 500-type who threw off the covers at 5 and engineered a hostile takeover by 7. Instead, I generally stayed up until 1:30 in the morning, reading magazines or clicking aimlessly through Wikipedia, waking up grumpy and remorseful at 9:30, if not later. Over the years I'd tried all the usual tactics—multiple alarms, earlier bedtimes, lab-rat levels of caffeine—and nothing had worked.

When I left my office job and started freelancing, things got worse. One day, after crawling out of bed at 10:30, I decided enough was enough. I needed help. So, I called up a battery of doctors and sleep researchers and put the question to them: Can a night person rewire herself to fall asleep at a reasonable hour and jump out of bed in the morning like a farmer with chickens to feed?

They all said it could be done. "I do think there are people for whom genetically this is going to be much harder," said Dr. Gary Richardson, senior research scientist at the Henry Ford Hospital Sleep Disorders Center in Detroit, "but nobody for whom it's impossible."

Genetics play an important role in making morning people perky. Five years ago, researchers at the University of Surrey isolated a gene called Period 3 that appears to regulate our preferences for morning or night. But genes aren't the whole story. For as much as 80 percent of the population, the doctors said, what matters most is lifestyle—the people you befriend, the career you choose, how you use your free time. If you like watching Letterman, chances are you'll find a way to stay up for it.

So, how to counter my natural urges for late-night Scrabulous? First off, the doctors told me, I had to choose a new wake-up time—no more than two hours earlier than usual—and stick to it. No exceptions, including weekends. "You have to be rigid initially," insisted Dr. Donna Arand, clinical director of the Kettering Sleep Disorders Center at Kettering Memorial Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. "If you're a diehard night owl, you're trying to set a rhythm your body doesn't naturally cling to."

The next rule was that upon waking, I had to leave the house immediately for a half-hour walk. "Can't I just look out the window?" I asked. The answer was no: I needed bright morning light and lots of it. In your hypothalamus is a clump of cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus that controls circadian rhythms. When light hits your retina, your SCN tells your body to stop pumping out melatonin, a hormone that makes you drowsy. When the light wanes, the melatonin production resumes, and in a few hours, you're ready for bed. By exposing myself to light earlier in the day, I'd train my SCN to shift the whole operation forward a few hours.

At night the routine was just the opposite: I had to avoid bright light starting a few hours before bedtime. But with five housemates and nary a dimmer switch, I was pretty sure I couldn't swing this one. A solution came from Timothy Monk, professor of psychiatry and director of the Human Chronobiology Research Program at the University of Pittsburgh. I should wear yellow sunglasses in the evening, he said. The colored lenses would block blue light—the part of the spectrum your internal clock is most responsive to—without making it impossible to see.

The doctors also suggested that I take an over-the-counter melatonin supplement six or seven hours before my old bedtime each day to help me adjust to the earlier bedtime. And I was supposed to swear off caffeine and alcohol—both of which can interfere with sleep—after 3 p.m. or so. If all went well, I'd make the shift in as little as two weeks. My boyfriend promised to make the transition with me. Which was good, since night owls and morning larks are more likely to bicker and spend time apart than are couples who share the same sleep habits.

At 6:30 on a weekday evening, I popped my first melatonin pill. Dr. Richardson had warned me that the pill might make me drowsy as soon as I took it, and sure enough, 15 minutes later my brain was shrouded in a thick fog. It felt like I had taken a teaspoon of Nyquil and I would now drift into a blissful, drugged sleep. Except that bedtime wasn't for another four hours.

The yellow glasses went on at 8 p.m. I looked like a cross between Bono and Henry Kissinger. At a get-together at a friend's house that evening, I wandered around in a sleepy, self-conscious haze. I went home at about 10 and picked up a novel to read in bed. A half-hour later, the book was slipping from my lifeless hands. So this is what being a morning person is like, I thought. It's like being 80 years old.

My alarm went off at 7 the next day. After a panicky wake-up, I realized I wasn't tired at all—I was full of bounce and vim. The melatonin pill had worked a miracle. "Time to get up!" I sang out, pulling up the blinds.

Outside, sleet fell from a heavy, gray sky. "This is the kind of morning that makes you glad to be alive," my boyfriend grumbled. As we embarked on our inaugural morning walk, I tried to appreciate the quiet streets and the small stores I had never noticed before. They were all closed. We were the only ones dumb enough to be outside at this hour.

The allure of being up first thing in the morning wasn't immediately apparent. By the third morning, however, the weather had cleared, and we were discovering that 7 a.m. was our new favorite time of day. The pale sun glinted off the rooftops as we stepped outside. The world was especially beautiful at this hour, and we were under doctor's orders to stroll around and enjoy it. We found a playground nearby and went down the tandem slide together. We explored unknown side streets. We discovered a park that was full of signs with interesting facts about our town. "The Edsel was manufactured here!"

Unfortunately, staying up late hadn't lost its appeal. One night early in my experiment, I was drifting off to sleep around 11 when my roommate came in. "We haven't caught up in a while," she said. By the time we finished chatting, it was midnight. Another evening a friend coaxed me out to a Brazilian dance club, and I didn't get to sleep until 1.

As the experiment wore on, waking up became more painful, not less, and not just on mornings after I'd stayed up late. When people asked me how I was doing, I invariably said, "Tired." By Day 9, there were dark bags under my eyes. That afternoon I gave in and took a two-hour nap at my desk.

I realized I'd made a tactical error. I'd budgeted for eight hours of sleep a night, but I was discovering I truly needed eight and a half, and the debt was accruing quickly. My boyfriend and I discussed shifting our bedtime back to 10:30—which seemed positively geriatric—or our wake-up time forward to 7:30—which seemed like a cop-out.

We liked our new schedule the way it was. It had given us a newfound sense of control over our lives. We started each morning with an act of will that set the tone for the day. We went to work early and finished early. And if the evenings were a bit less fun than before—even a lot less fun—we also remembered how we often stayed up late into the night, zombified, both of us staring silently into our laptops. Our new routine seemed like a commitment to live a more virtuous life.

Still, I was so tired I was losing the will to live at all. By Day 11, I had developed two distinct personalities: "Mel," my melatonin-induced alter ego, who walked briskly around the block as the sun was rising, and "Deepa," who emerged three hours later, cranky and easily provoked.

On Day 13, I ended the experiment one day early. The decision was easy. The alarm went off, and I stayed put. No more melatonin, no more glasses, no more mandatory walks. But in the days that followed, I still got sleepy around 10:30 and ended up going to bed about an hour later. My wake-up time crept forward, but settled at a still-respectable 8 a.m., where it has remained since. According to the doctors, the key is incremental change—so if I were to push for 7 a.m. now, I might find it easier than I did the first time.

But I probably won't try. Being a morning person has its drawbacks. Morning people get sleepy just when all the fun begins. What I really wanted when I started this experiment, I now realize, was to be one of those crazies who functions well on just five hours of sleep. That's never going to happen.

And hey, I'm not not a morning person. Recently, I took the bold step of signing up for a 7 a.m. gym class that meets twice a week. The woman at the reception desk was a little concerned. "You know what time it starts, right? That's OK with you?"

"Yep," I said.

"Good," she said, shaking her head and smiling. "Because I couldn't do it."

For a split second, I wanted to give her a condescending smile and say, "I just don't understand why it's so hard." That smugness! That total lack of compassion! I kept my mouth shut, but I knew I had arrived.

Deepa Ranganathan is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.