Being slow in the morning may not mean you are depressed or apathetic about your day. Natural night-owls tend to feel more energetic as the day goes on. When other people begin to nod, they’re getting their second wind and have trouble quieting down.
Genes are part of this story, but they needn’t rule. Most of us can’t sleep as late as we’d like, so if you’ve fallen into a night-owl pattern and can’t tear yourself away from the glowing light of your computer at 1:30 a.m., you’re probably sleep-deprived. Many people say they’re resigned to being fatigued or feel fine despite less than six hours of sleep most nights. In fact, chronic sleep deprivation isn’t a minor annoyance. Lack of sleep increases your risk of obesity, depression, and accidents behind the wheel, among many dangers.
A sleep-deprived life is a life of deprivation.
You can change your body clock by adopting good habits — which include ample exercise and staying away from electronic devices, including TV, for at least an hour before bedtime. During the transition, you can help the process by getting extra sunlight and taking melatonin supplements.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by our bodies in response to light. After a week of natural light only (including the glow of a campfire), our bodies release melatonin near sunset, and levels decline around sunrise. Under modern conditions, the amount of melatonin in your blood typically rises 2 hours before you fall asleep and declines as you awaken.
It’s common to take melatonin supplements just before you get into bed. Alas, that’s much too late. People vary in how soon they fall asleep after the rise in natural melatonin. The best time for taking a supplement, research suggests, falls in a range of 4.5 hours, depending on the individual. This means that if you usually go to bed at 1:30 a.m., you might need to take a supplement as early as 9 p.m. to push your body clock earlier. Once you’re regularly getting to sleep at your desired bedtime — let’s say midnight — you might take melatonin 2 hours before.
You’ll also hear different recommendations about how much to take. The correct dose depends on the problem you want to solve. For example taking a melatonin supplement can help kids with chronic headaches, in doses as large as 3 mg, but there are questions about its use in children at any dosage. Supplements sold in stores are often 3 mg, too. But that’s probably far too much if you’re trying to regulate your sleep. In studies of the impact of melatonin on sleep, participants often receive .5 mg tablets. Your doctor can help you decide the best dosage for you.
Another way to push your body clock earlier is to expose yourself to sunlight in the morning. In one study, researchers tested the effect of taking .5 mg of melatonin 5.75 hours before your usual bedtime, exposure to 3 hours of 3,000 lux broad spectrum white light beginning an hour before the normal rising time — and the two combined. As it turned out, the melatonin and white light worked about equally well to move the body clock earlier. But the combination did the best job of all. You might try this strategy to minimize jet lag when you travel east or when you start a new, earlier work or school schedule. Begin taking your supplement several days beforehand.
If you need to push yourself towards falling asleep later — perhaps after traveling west — try taking melatonin after you awake and exposing yourself to sunlight late in the day.
July 23, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA