We’re all familiar with the phrases “early bird” and “night owl.” Some of us are able to wake right up in the morning and start the day immediately, while some of us function much better at night. Everyone’s daily schedules work differently because our bodies all work differently.
Our bodies function according to our own unique biological clock— part of this includes our chronotypes. I talk about chronotypes a lot because they’re a very important part of getting a good night’s sleep. I’ve even written a book about it called The Power of When.
In case you’re not familiar with chronotypes though, I hope this helpful guide can fill in some of the blanks you have on the subject. Sleeping according to your chronotype’s preferred schedule can make a huge difference in getting the quality sleep you need each night, even if you don’t follow what may be considered a “normal” sleep schedule.
But before we get much further, let’s take a look at what chronotypes are, and why they’re important to our daily function.
What is a Chronotype?
A chronotype is your body’s natural disposition to be awake or asleep at certain times. Your chronotype is closely related to your body’s circadian rhythm, which controls your body’s sleep-wake cycle and melatonin production. Our circadian rhythm is primarily influenced by light exposure, and tends to rise and set with the sun. This means less melatonin is produced in the morning to help you wake up, and more is produced during the evenings to help you fall asleep.
Unlike our circadian rhythm, our specific chronotype isn’t influenced by any outside force, except for genetics. This is why it’s so important to work with your chronotype rather than against it if you want to be as rested and productive as possible.
Why are Chronotypes Important?
Your chronotype doesn’t just affect your sleep, it affects all aspects of your day to day life. This includes your appetite, your core body temperature, your productivity windows, and even your ideal time for sex! Knowing your chronotype is extremely helpful for scheduling your day’s work around your productivity windows so you can accomplish all that you want while you still have the energy to do it well.
If you’re consistently experiencing poor sleep quality despite getting a full night’s sleep, then it’s quite possible that you are working against your chronotype. What may work best for one person’s chronotype might not work for another person’s chronotype at all. This is especially true of bed partners who have different chronotypes but try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time together.
What are the Four Chronotypes?
We already know about the early birds and the night owls, but I’ve actually broken it down further into four chronotypes that indicate a person’s ideal schedule according to their unique internal clock. These chronotypes are dolphin, lion, bear, and wolf.
Each of these chronotypes have different schedules and windows of productivity that allow them to function at their best. Let’s take a look at each of these chronotypes and their unique properties below.
Of all the chronotypes, Dolphin is the hardest to create a set schedule around, since people with this chronotype tend to have trouble finding a sleep schedule that works for them. People with the Dolphin chronotype tend to be very intelligent, but also high-strung, sensitive sleepers who are often easily disturbed by noise or light. A Dolphin’s fragmented sleep patterns often overlap with symptoms of insomnia, which may or may not be indicative of the disorder itself.
But there is good news for all the Dolphins out there! People with this chronotype have an excellent window of productivity— they tend to get things done between 10AM and 2PM each day.
“Early to bed, early to rise” is a good way to summarize this chronotype. People with the Lion chronotype tend to wake up early in the morning, and are most productive in the hours before noon. Lions are at their best when they can immediately get started with their day’s to-do list and get things done sooner rather than later.
After finishing their day and winding down in the early evening, Lions tend to fall asleep early, usually by 9 or 10 PM.
This is the most common chronotype— about 55 percent of people have the Bear chronotype. People with this intermediate chronotype are generally most productive before noon, and begin feeling declines in energy in the late afternoon, and begin winding down for sleep in the early evening.
The sleep-wake cycle of Bears is aligned with the sun, so it’s more natural for them to rise and set with the sun as well.
Odds are, we know someone who is not a morning person. These people almost certainly have the Wolf chronotype.
People with the Wolf chronotype are most energetic waking up later in the day. They are most productive between noon and 4PM, and also get boosts of energy during the evening.
I’m actually a Wolf chronotype myself. Working according to my body’s unique schedule makes it much easier to get everything I need done during the day, especially if a day is especially busy!
How Do I Find My Chronotype?
Finding your chronotype may seem like a tricky task, but it really isn’t. The easiest way to find your chronotype is to take my chronoquiz.
The chronoquiz will determine your chronotype through quick and simple questions intended to help you think about and understand your biological programming. Once you know your chronotype, it’ll be much easier to organize your body’s best schedule. Give it a try— you might be surprised by what you learn!
Can I Change my Chronotype?
Put simply, no. You can’t change your chronotype yourself, but your chronotype can shift on its own with age. In fact, it’s perfectly normal for that to happen. Most kids have an early chronotype, driving them to wake up and go to sleep early. But as they grow into adolescence, their chronotype begins to shift later and later, before shifting earlier again as they reach adulthood.
What if I Don’t Fit in with Just One Chronotype?
Chronobiology is complex and dynamic, just like our individual chronotypes. We’re not always going to fit perfectly into one chronotype or the other. Sometimes we may even be in-between chronotypes. In fact, people with the Bear chronotype are more likely to be part of a hybrid chronotype, and share traits with Lions, Wolves, and even Dolphins.
This happens more than you might think— I can tell you this from personal experience! As mentioned above I am normally a Wolf, but lately I’ve been falling asleep earlier and waking up earlier, more like a Lion or a Bear. This leads back to how chronotypes can change with time and age. Our sleep needs change as we age, and it’s not unusual to find ourselves in the middle of a transitional period where our body’s clock may be a little askew.
If you’re struggling to follow your chronotype’s schedule, or are in-between chronotypes, there are steps you can take to help get the sleep quality and quantity you need to be at your best each day.
1: Eat at the Right Times
It’s important to avoid eating too close to bedtime to make sure that your body has time to digest and metabolize your food before you sleep. Otherwise, you may find that falling asleep is difficult, if not impossible. An early, carb-heavy dinner is ideal for helping the body prepare for sleep— this is because it gives your digestive system plenty of time to work before you wind down.
A similar rule applies to breakfast as well. Eating a high-protein breakfast right after you wake up can help jumpstart your body and give you the energy you need to take on the day.
2: Avoid Caffeine in the Afternoon
The stimulant effect of caffeine can really ruin your rest if consumed too close to bedtime. Consuming caffeine within six hours of your bedtime could reduce your total sleep time by up to 41 minutes, so it’s a good idea to stop consuming caffeinated beverages at least six hours before your scheduled bedtime.
If you enjoy caffeinated beverages like soda, tea, or coffee during the day, consider drinking their caffeine-free alternatives after your chosen cut-off point.
3: Follow a Consistent Sleep Schedule
A consistent sleep schedule makes a huge difference in your sleep quality, and it’s especially important to keep your chronotype’s ideal schedule in mind here as well.
Since your chronotype can influence your ideal bedtime, be sure to follow that as closely as you can. If you need to ease yourself into a new schedule, that’s okay! It’s not always easy getting yourself on a new sleep schedule, but as long as you are consistent, it’ll get much easier. It may soon become second nature!
Your chronotype is a very important factor that determines how you function. What I’ve covered here is really only the tip of the iceberg! If you’re interested in learning more about your chronotype and your ideal schedule, check out my book The Power of When.
Even if you know your chronotype and your ideal schedule, no chronotype is immune to sleep disturbances or sleep disorders. If you are struggling to sleep even after adjusting to your chronotype, then you may have a sleep disorder like insomnia or a circadian rhythm sleep disorder. If so, it’s very important to contact your doctor or a sleep expert to see what your potential treatment options are. To find accredited sleep specialists and sleep centers near you, check out this tool provided by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
It’s much easier for us to be happy and productive when we’re working with our bodies rather than against them. Finding your chronotype is a quick and easy way to start finding your perfect sleep schedule and boost your productivity. Our lives can get pretty hectic sometimes, but it’s much easier to handle when you have a solid plan for when to sleep, when to wake up, and when to be productive.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor™