Chronotypes are what categorizes people into different groups based on their circadian rhythm, sleep behaviors, and sleep schedules.
The word “chronotype” comes from the word “chrono”, meaning time. Essentially, chronotypes tell us whether we’re more likely to wake up early or stay up late.
Sleep chronotypes separate night owls from morning larks, and help us identify when we’re likely to achieve our highest levels of productivity. This is because your sleep chronotype can help predict when your brain will be the most ‘turned on’ and what time of day you’ll be most mentally alert.
Ultimately, while many of us assume our sleep habits are controlled almost entirely by our own schedules (when we choose to rise and rest), chronotypes tell us a different story.
Scientists believe that our internal chronotypes explain why some of us will always be more active and alert in the evening, or in the morning, no matter how we adapt our routine.
What are Sleep Chronotypes?
Chronotypes essentially describe the body’s natural predisposition to be alert or drowsy at certain times of day. Chronotypes are heavily linked to the concept of the circadian rhythm – the internal body clock which controls our sleep-wake cycle, and the production of sleep hormones.
However, while the circadian rhythm is influenced by a number of external factors, including light exposure and schedule changes, sleep chronotypes are less susceptible to training and alteration. You may be able to correct or change your circadian rhythm by forcing yourself to wake and sleep at specific times each day. Your sleep chronotype, however, is not influenced by external factors – your sleep chronotype is linked to your genetics.
You could genetically be more likely to be a night owl with much more mental alertness at night if it’s in your DNA to have a late chronotype. You can find out your genetic chronotype and other genetic sleep traits if you read your genetic sleep reports from CircleDNA.
Studies suggest that our sleep chronotype is primarily linked to the PER3 gene. Typically, when this gene is longer, you may be more of a morning person. When the gene is shorter, there’s a good chance you’ll be more productive and alert at night.
Sleep chronotypes explain why natural night owls can still get up and go to work early in the morning each day, but they may not feel their most creative, productive selves until later in the evening when they feel more mentally alert.
Chronotypes influence when we’re most likely to feel alert or sleepy, but they don’t impact how much sleep we need. Most human beings will need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each day to function at their best, regardless of their chronotype. However, depending on your schedule, you might find it’s harder to get the rest you need if you’re a morning lark or night owl.
For instance, if you need to get up for work each day at 6am, but your late chronotype prevents you from falling asleep until 1am, you’re more likely to suffer from sleep deprivation. You may find yourself catching up on sleep on the weekends due to incurred sleep debt throughout the week.
The Benefits of Knowing Your Chronotype
Since sleep chronotypes are difficult to alter, knowing when you’re most likely to be alert or sleepy could be a good way to ensure you’re making the most of your schedule and choosing the right career. In today’s world of flexible workplaces and remote employment, you may even be able to choose to work during the times of day when you feel most productive, based on your chronotype. A freelancer, for example, could work at whatever time of day they feel most productive.
Adapting to your chronotype, instead of working against it, can also lead to an overall better quality of life. If you’re constantly experiencing poor sleep quality, it could be a sign you’re not adhering to the unique needs of your body. Your chronotype can affect all aspects of your day-to-day life, from your energy levels to your appetite, and even your personality.
For instance, studies indicate there’s a direct link between the Big Five personality traits (such as openness and neuroticism), and your sleep chronotype. Morning people are generally considered to be more conscientious and agreeable, while night people may be more open, and neurotic. There could be various reasons for these personality differences. For instance, people who are more active at night may not have as many opportunities to socialize with friends and loved ones who are morning people.
If your sleep chronotype clashes with the people around you, there’s a greater chance you’re likely to feel isolated and withdrawn, which can lead to greater levels of neuroticism, as well as potential mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.
Similarly, our sleep chronotypes, and how we adhere to them can also influence how successful we’re likely to be. People with a morning chronotype may be more successful in school and traditional workplace roles where they’re required to be the most productive early in the day. Alternatively, those with a late chronotype may be more successful in creative roles and entrepreneurship, where they can adapt their schedule to peaks in productivity.
What are the Different Sleep Chronotypes?
Most of us are used to separating people into two categories: early birds and night owls. However, research into sleeping patterns has revealed there’s more of a spectrum to sleep chronotypes than we previously thought. One of the most popular chronotype tests, created by Dr. Michael Breus, highlights four categories, linked to animals.
The four chronotypes identified by Dr. Breus are:
The bear is the most common chronotype for people in the Western world. Dr. Breus says bears make up around 55% of the population. If you fall into this category, your sleeping patterns will follow the standard cycle of the sun.
In other words, you’ll wake up naturally in the morning, and start feeling sleepier when the sun goes down. Bears function well with traditional office hours, and they have bursts of energy throughout the day. However, they can also suffer from slumps in the midafternoon. Bears are comfortable waking early, but also need to sleep relatively early to get a consistent 8 hours of rest each night.
These individuals might be more extroverted, because they’re more likely to interact with a wide range of different people throughout their routine. Bears need to rest regularly otherwise, they can find themselves feeling the need to “hibernate”. If you don’t have a good night’s sleep as a bear, you might try to catch up by sleeping in during the weekends.
The Lion is perhaps the closest thing to the early bird chronotype. Lions feel most productive early in the day. They often wake earlier than most (around 5am or 6am), and can get a lot of focus work done long before lunch rolls around. However, because lions experience a peak in energy at the beginning of the day, they’re also more likely to feel exhausted by midafternoon.
After-lunch slumps are common for lions, even if they follow a good routine and have great sleep hygiene. Many lion types will even consider taking an afternoon nap to regain some of their energy between 12pm and 4pm.
Similar to bears, lions often thrive best on a full eight hours of sleep. This means if they wake early, they tend to sleep relatively early too. Their get-up-and-go attitude makes lion chronotypes quite confident and charismatic. They tend to have a lot of ambition and charisma, and showcase a lot of energy during their prime productivity hours.
The dolphin is essentially the insomniac of the aquatic world. They have perhaps the most trouble with sleep of all the chronotypes, because they can never truly switch off. In the animal kingdom, dolphins only ever sleep with half of their brain switched off at any time. Translated into the human world, dolphin chronotypes can find it difficult to relax and unwind for sleep.
This means many dolphins spend a lot of their night awake, worrying, and over-thinking rather than getting a good night’s rest. When they do fall asleep, dolphins are more likely to wake frequently throughout the night, and may struggle to achieve deep sleep stages. Dolphins tend to fall asleep simply because their body can’t handle being awake anymore, rather than willingly giving into a good night’s rest. This can lead to more issues with stress and emotional turmoil through the day.
Dolphins are often quite introverted people because they’re so overwhelmed and exhausted in their day-to-day lives. Though they have trouble relaxing, they’re usually highly intelligent and spend a lot of time in their own heads, planning and thinking about the successes and failures of the day.
While the Lion is the core morning bird of the four animal chronotypes, the Wolf is essentially the night owl. Wolves are more active, engaged, and productive at night. They feel creative and inspired during the evening hours but may struggle to focus during the early hours of the day.
Wolf chronotypes struggle to get up each morning more than most. They’re the kind of people who constantly hit snooze on their alarm clock, and they hate the idea of a morning workout. Unlike most sleep chronotypes, wolves tend to have two distinct periods of enhanced productivity throughout the day. Most wolves feel a charge of energy around mid-day, then they feel the same boost again at around 6:00 or 7:00 PM.
Because the Wolf thrives at night, they tend to work well in roles where they can distribute their focused and creative tasks throughout the day. Some wolves will dedicate time to focus work between 12:00 PM and 2:00 PM, then return to their tasks again between 5:00 PM and 9:00 PM later that day. From a personality perspective, wolves are generally quite introverted, intelligent, and creative.
Can You Change Your Chronotype?
If you’re unhappy with your chronotype, you unfortunately may not be able to do much about it, since chronotypes tend to be genetically ingrained. As mentioned, while we can alter our circadian rhythm and sleeping schedules, our chronotypes are generally defined by our genes, making them more difficult to alter. Even if you adapt your schedule to suit your social or professional life, you may still be working against your chronotype.
Using your DNA test to learn more about your genetic chronotype, your ideal schedule and your sleeping patterns could be a great way to reduce any feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm you feel throughout the day. Adhering to the needs of your chronotype as much as possible could mean you can boost your productivity and creativity levels, reduce your risk of exhaustion and fatigue, and even preserve your mental health.
While you might not be able to change your genetic sleep chronotype, understanding it and adapting to it can ensure you live a better quality of life overall.
- NCBI: What Can Make the Difference Between Chronotypes in Sleep Duration? Testing the Similarity of Their Homeostatic Processes
- NCBI: Genome-wide association analysis identifies novel loci for chronotype in 100,420 individuals from the UK Biobank
- SAGE: Chronotype, Sleep Behavior, and the Big Five Personality Factors
- The Sleep Doctor: Chronotype Quiz