What if I told you that if you knew a particular secret, you would effortlessly and easily sleep deeper, wake more refreshed, and have more energy for your daily activities naturally?
Well, the secret is to understand your sleep chronotype.
As Australia’s leading sleep expert, I’ve written a book on this exact topic – Bear, Lion Or Wolf: How Understanding Your Sleep Type Could Change Your Life. It would be more than a pleasure to let you in on the low-down of your chronotype, so you can sleep, feel and live better.
What Is a Sleep Chronotype?
Sleep chronotypes, or your chronotype, though it sounds complex, is actually very simple. It’s a categorisation system for your circadian rhythm, which is either early, mid or late:
- Those with an early circadian phase prefer to wake and sleep early (Lions)
- Those with a mid phase like to wake and sleep neither early nor late (Bears)
- Those with a late phase, as you have probably already guessed, like to wake and sleep late (Wolves)
That said, your sleep chronotype actually identifies much more than your typical sleep-wake preferences. Rather, it pinpoints periods of peak mental and physical productivity; your sleep needs, typical sleep saboteurs, ideal sleep strategies and even personality traits.
Hence, below is a a more detailed outline of the three chronotypes, as outlined from my book:
- Ideal sleep time: earliest – 10pm and 6am
- Sleep needs: lowest – 7 hours usually is sufficient
- Peak productivity period: earliest – 8am until 12pm
- Greatest sleep challenge: going to bed early enough and anxiety, which leads to light, un-refreshing sleep
- Greatest sleep strength: your drive to operate at 100% in work and play – usually resulting in practices which incidentally improve sleep, such as consistent exercise and a healthy diet.
- Key personality traits: leadership, proactivity, positivity, health orientated and routine based
- Portion of population: 25%
- Ideal sleep time: 10.30pm and 7am
- Sleep needs: highest – 8-9 hours of deep, high quality sleep
- Peak productivity period: 10am until 2pm
- Greatest sleep challenge: switching off from screens in the evening
- Greatest sleep strength: as you hate to let others down, if you have a coach or accountability partner working with you on your sleep goals, you will deliver
- Key personality traits: reliable, humble, down to earth, hardworking, operates best in a partnership or team
- Portion of population: 50%
- Ideal sleep time: latest – 12am and 8am (if possible)
- Sleep needs: medium – 7-9 hours, however this is often not achieved due to their late sleep time
- Peak productivity period: latest – afternoon if necessary, however, most wolves do their best work after dark, as in between 7-11pm.
- Greatest sleep challenge: your inherent circadian delay, which means you are simply not tired in the evening, and instead, eager to socialize, which often leaves you sleep deprived and sleeping in the next morning.
- Greatest sleep strength: adaptability for evening work – it is when you thrive, after all! Comparatively, Bears and Lions find this near impossible.
- Key personality traits: unique, creative, risk taking, fun-loving, social
- Portion of population: 25%
How Knowing Your Sleep Chronotype Helps You Sleep And Live Better
Higher quality sleep equates to a higher quality experience of life – period.
Recall the last time you woke feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to face the day. Now imagine being able to recreate this experience, on demand, with a specific set of behaviors. That is exactly what can, and will happen, by using this advice accordingly.
Here are also a few ways how understanding your sleep chronotype helps you sleep better:
1. You know when and how long you should sleep each night
After identifying your sleep chronotype, ideally, you will cater your sleep time and sleep length accordingly. As this timeframe coincides to your peak melatonin levels – the master hormone to help you fall and stay asleep – your sleep is likely to improve – think falling asleep faster and waking less through the night.
2. Reduced bedtime anxiety – less laying awake in bed staring at the ceiling
Bedtime anxiety is the experience of going to bed, laying awake and being unable to sleep – which can occur by going to bed at a time misaligned to your circadian preference, when your melatonin levels are too low. For this reason, though it’s often touted that 10pm is an ideal bedtime, this only applies to Lions. Rather, Bears and Wolves should go to bed a touch later, as this respects your melatonin peak, and will reduce the risk of bedtime anxiety.
3. You can take stock of your commonplace sleep saboteurs – before they lead to a sleepless nights
While there are general rules for healthy sleep, such as avoiding screens in the hour before bed, and only consuming caffeine before 12pm, each chronotype has sleep saboteurs that are more likely to occur for them, compared to others.
For example, Lions have a tendency to become anxious – and thus need to be particularly proactive in their anti-anxiety practices, such as meditation and exercise.
On the other hand, Bears have a tendency to loaf a little too long on the couch in the evening – usually in front of the TV.
Lastly, Wolves, who have the most energy in the evening and the least in the morning, need to avoid sleeping in – though it is tempting, it only accentuates your circadian phase delay and makes it harder for you to sleep at an appropriate time that night.
While yes, these challenges present to all of us, regardless of chronotype, it’s important to note that your sleep type does predict ones that are most relevant to you – so you can be aware and take stock, before they take stock of you.
How to Find Your Chronotype
For the most reliable answer, check out my bio for the link to the chronotype quiz available on my website, which mirrors the quiz in my book. However, if you’d like to have an insight now while you’re reading this article (I understand, time is precious), then answer these 5 key questions.
Compared to others, my preferred bedtime is:
- A – earlier
- B – sometimes earlier, sometimes later
- C – later
- How alert am I in the first hour upon waking?
- A – very – it’s when I do my best work
- B – somewhat alert, enough to know I need a coffee, stat!
- C – not alert at all, and could easily go back to sleep
- When is my peak productivity?
- A – before lunch
- B – between 10 and 2
- C – in the evening
- If I had a choice, when would I get up?
- A – around 6am
- B – 7 or 8am
- C – after 8am
The more A’s you have, the more you are a lionThe more B’s, the more you are a bear.The more C’s, the more you are a wolf.
1. Can I have two sleep chronotypes?
Yes – hybrids do exist, as do those who fall on the cusp of two – e.g. those who are close to the cut off for Lions and Bears, for example.
Similarly, it’s important to know that chronotypes highlight our innate preferences – which doesn’t always eventuate in reality.
Third, we only exhibit 80% of our chronotype traits – so it’s possible that you will self-identify with the traits of another sleep type. Hence, such considerations need to be made when assessing the validity of your chronotype.
2. Where is the dolphin chronotype?
The dolphin chronotype has been identified by fellow leading sleep expert Dr Michael Breus based on his clinical practice with insomniac patients – meaning they have a haphazard sleep schedule, typically struggle to sleep and suffer consequential effects – depression, anxiety, burnout, compromised cognitive capacity and memory loss.
My chronotype categories, on the other hand, stem from the MEQ scale, a widely used psychometric test which assimilates individuals into groups based on their preferences for morning and evening.
3. What determines my chronotype?
A 2017 study by University of Michigan Medical School found 50% of your sleep personality is underpinned by genetics, such as the PER1, 2 and 3 genes and the (aptly named) CLOCK genes. The other 50% of your chronotype is dictated by endogenous (external) influences, such as blue light, stress, diet and lifestyle.
4. What’s the difference between my Circadian rhythm and chronotype?
Your circadian rhythm is any 24 hour internal clock – with your sleep-wake clock being one of the most commonly discussed. Your chronotype on the other hand is the categorisation system of your sleep-wake circadian clock, grouped into Bears, Lions and Wolves.
Sleep Better with Chronotype Specific Sleep Strategies
From morning and bedtime routine, through to diet and supplements (and more!); each chronotype has specific recommendations that serve them best. Mindful not to overwhelm you, here are three pieces of advice for each chronotype that you can – and should – implement ASAP.
1. Avoid caffeine until 10.30am or 11am
it could otherwise overstimulate you and amplify anxiety. Though it may be typical for you now, downscaling your caffeine intake gently – first moving from coffee to black tea, then to green tea, over the course of a week – will produce considerable differences upon your anxiety levels.
Even though black and green tea contain caffeine, the latter contains only a third of that of coffee, and also, unlike coffee, provides l-theanine, a compound to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, so you feel more relaxed.
2. Have an early dinner – 6pm is ideal
In order to fall asleep with ease at your ideal bedtime (which is 10pm), you need your digestion to be at rest for several hours beforehand, at least. As digestion is a thermogenic process – heats the core body temperature – this reduces the production of melatonin, as this relies on a cool core body temperature to be produced. Hence, if you eat late, tucking in for an early night will be challenging – to say the least.
3. Wear ear plugs to bed
As it’s likely to be earlier than 75% of the population (Bears and Wolves collectively), their noise may disturb your sleep. A 2019 study by the University of Basel in Switzerland identified that for every ten-decibel increase in noise, sleep onset was delayed by 5.6 minutes and sleep efficiency reduced by 3 per cent – which in context, means traffic noise can increase sleep latency by a whopping 45 minutes.
1. Respect your high sleep needs
Ok so, Lions and Wolves may be able to comfortably have 7 hours of sleep, but that’s not you. You, my Bear friend, need a solid 8 hours – at a minimum. Also note this is 8 hours of high quality sleep – instigated by an hour of tech free time before bed, using blue light blocking glasses (see next point) and an evening shower.
2. Wear 100% blue light blocking glasses at least 2.5 hours before bed
Although your optimal bedtime is 10.30pm, right now, it’s probable that this doesn’t happen because plain and simple, you’re not tired. While this is valid, it’s equally valid to recognise that blue light suppresses melatonin, the hormone to promote these exact feelings. Hence, to block it out with 100% blue light blocking glasses will help you fall asleep that little bit earlier, and get the sleep you so desperately need. Reflectively, a 2020 study found those wearing blue light glasses fell asleep 79% faster than those wearing placebo glasses.
3. Have an accountability partner for your pre-sleep routines
Characteristically, bears perform best in a team – so use this knowledge to your advantage. Rather than committing your 10.30pm bedtime (see above) to yourself, commit to an accountability partner – research by the American Academy of Training and Development has found that you are 65% more likely to achieve your objective by doing so. And, if you have a scheduled check in with this AP, this likelihood increases to 95%.
1. Have at least an hour of ‘tech free time’ before bed
With an addictive personality, high evening energy levels, and a tendency to take risks, switching off from your favorite show or game is harder for you than it is for others – cue such sleep saboteurs derailing your sleep needs. And though it seems marginal, know that a 2012 study found those using a phone before bed were 48% more likely to take longer than an hour to fall asleep, and 35% more likely to lose more than 2 hours of sleep.
2. Do not sleep in – instead, take a nap according to my Perfect Nap Plan
Though you’re probably sleep deprived from another late night, sleeping in is not how I advise you repay your sleep debt. If you do, you’ll only perpetuate your circadian delay – which not only leaves you awake at bedtime, but also, exhausted in the morning. Instead, take a nap following the rules of my Perfect Nap Plan:
- a) keep it short – less than 30 minutes
- b) keep it dark – wear an eye mask
- c) keep it early, finishing the nap no later than 3.30pm.
3. Expose yourself to 40 minutes of natural sunlight upon waking
For you, of all chronotypes, mornings are the hardest – and given that sleepiness hormone melatonin is higher for you than your Bear and Lion counterparts, it’s perfectly reasonable. However, as noted above, sleeping in is not advised, and as you can assume, neither is 2 or 3 double espressos.
Thus, to stimulate the body and reduce your melatonin levels naturally, leverage our primary zeitgeber – light. Specifically, 40 minutes of natural sunlight, in the hour upon waking when the circadian rhythm is the most sensitive to light, is ideal, and will substantially decrease morning fatigue.
Knowledge alone is not power – applied knowledge is power. Hence, Bears, Lion and Wolves alike, please empower yourself to create tangible results by taking action. In doing so, you can see the results you truly want: sleeping longer, deeper and waking more refreshed – on demand.
Featured photo credit: Tânia Mousinho via unsplash.com