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Can night owls get the worm?

By Bettina Levecke | China Daily | Updated: 2011-02-23 07:46

 Can night owls get the worm?

Waking up from a phase of light sleep can make the mornings easier for night owls. provided to China Daily

Understanding sleep phases can help those who aren't 'morning people' to rise more gracefully and shine brighter in the early hours. Bettina Levecke reports.

Every morning is torture for "night owls". When the alarm clock rings, they want to crawl deeper under the covers. Make breakfast? Go to work? Drive a car? All much too much. In their mind's eye the new day looks like an endless hurdle. Where does their aversion to rising early come from?

"Night owls are still in the deep sleep phase when they're awakened, which is why it's so hard for them to get up," says Dr Achim Kramer, professor of chronobiology at Berlin's Charite University Hospital.

They have a slower biological clock, the circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle, that "ticks" differently for every individual.

Chronobiologists basically distinguish between two types of people: "early birds", also known as "larks", and "night owls".

"Early birds are active early, while night owls have to drag themselves out of bed in the morning," Kramer says.

A person's circadian rhythm is genetically determined.

"Night owls' biological clock ticks more slowly. If left undisturbed, they'd wake up later in the morning," Kramer says.

When the alarm clock goes off, night owls are jolted awake from a deep, sound sleep. So they get up in a foul mood.

"People who want to avoid this can experiment with wake-up times a bit," advises Sabine Schonert-Hirz, a health and stress management specialist in Germany. She says it is often sufficient to set the alarm clock to ring half an hour early.

"You've got to catch a phase when you're sleeping only lightly," Kramer adds.

Every 90 minutes or so, our sleep phase changes among dream sleep (rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep), light sleep and deep sleep. Waking up from deep sleep is especially difficult.

Someone unable to catch the right phase can use a sleep phase alarm clock as an aid.

"These alarm clocks register the sleeper's movements and can therefore recognize phases of wakefulness or light sleep," explains Juergen Zulley, a researcher at the Sleep Disorders Center at Regensburg University Hospital. They awaken the sleeper within a predetermined timeframe. "This can be a real improvement for night owls," Zulley says.

All three sleep experts agree that night owls should try to wake up gently.

"A loud, beeping alarm clock may be effective, but it's hardly conducive to a good mood," Zulley says.

A dawn simulator, on the other hand, wakes up sleepers noiselessly.

"When it's light, our body curtails production of the sleep hormone melatonin. We wake up automatically," Zulley says. He explains that a dawn simulator combined with a radio or music alarm clock is ideal and "promotes a good mood".

Instead of bounding out of bed immediately, Schonert-Herz suggests getting into gear gradually. "Loll in bed like a cat and stretch your entire body. This activates the brain," she says.

To boost blood circulation, she adds, fresh air is helpful, such as that provided by an open window.

Light is also a waker-upper.

"If it's still dark in the morning, a daylight lamp provides the necessary luminance," she says. The bluer the light, the stronger the waking power.

"By the same token, night owls should keep the level of lighting down in the evening so that they feel sleepy sooner," Kramer adds.

Hardy souls can start the day with a cold shower, Zulley says.

"It's unpleasant at first but optimally stimulates blood circulation in the whole body," he says. "Afterwards, you feel fresh and fit."

It is also important to have time. "Someone who tends to be grumpy in the morning ought not intensify the grumpiness with stress," Schonert-Hirz says. "Having to rush makes everything worse."

Eating a hearty breakfast not only energizes the enervated, it is also an antidote to grumpiness. An ideal breakfast, she says, would be a combination of bread or muesli, fruit, dairy products, an egg and a stimulant like black tea or coffee. But, she warns: "Keep sugar consumption at moderate levels. Otherwise, the body releases stress hormones."

People who are always grouchy in the morning should consider changing their sleeping patterns.

"Adults regularly need seven hours of sleep a night," Zulley says. But night owls, in particular, find it difficult to go to bed in the evening. Although a person's biological clock cannot be completely altered, some fine-tuning is possible.

"Try to work on your habits," Zulley says.

Relaxation rituals in the evening, such as taking a warm bath or reading instead of watching television, can make it easier to fall asleep a little earlier.

German Press Agency

(China Daily 02/23/2011 page19)

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