Alexandra Wharton, an extreme night owl, advocates for awareness of circadian rhythm sleep disorders and accommodations for late chronotypes. She is a board member of the Circadian Sleep Disorders Network, a chapter leader for Start School Later and writes for Delayed Sleeper. She has 20 years' experience in digital communications.
Alexandra is speaking at
Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz about circadian rhythms. In 2017, scientists won the Nobel Prize for researching them, and the Sleep Research Society just changed its slogan to “Advancing Sleep and Circadian Science.” Despite this growing awareness, many sleep specialists don’t understand circadian rhythm disorders (CRDs) and misdiagnose “night owls” as insomniacs or depressives. Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder (DSPD) is an intractable neurological condition in which the body’s internal clock is delayed several hours behind what society considers "normal." DSPDers can follow a consistent sleep schedule at a later time such as 4 am to 11 am but they cannot shift their sleep earlier. Adhering to strict sleep hygiene guidelines is not effective for extreme night owls. This can be very hard for typical sleepers (especially “morning larks”) to understand. DSPDers suffer from what chronobiologists call social jet lag, as it’s similar to the feeling of rhythm misalignment that typical people suffer when they travel across time zones.
Mutations of various circadian clock genes cause DSPD - the timing of various physiological processes (temperature, blood pressure, appetite, heart rate) do not synchronize properly. I’ve learned through DNA testing that I have these genetic mutations. Suffering from DSPD causes multiple challenges: you feel tired and unrested during the day, which has serious consequences on all aspects of life (work, school, social). In addition, there is no compassion for those with DSPD - it's considered the "fault" (lack of discipline, anxiety, etc.) of the afflicted. Having a sleep disorder carries a stigma that does not exist with other health conditions. Although DSPD is a physiological condition, most people believe it is psychological. 1 in 75 people have the CRY1 circadian gene mutation and about 40% of the population has a natural bedtime of later than midnight. This means that a large portion of the population has what is considered to be a later chronotype.
Experts believe people should live according to their chronotype – for example, extreme night owls should work in the evening when they are mentally peaking and most productive. Because of early start times at work and school, evening chronotypes are at greater risk for both mental and physical illnesses due to the toll of having to live against their natural body clock. The CDC warns that sleep deprivation is a global public health crisis. In the past year, there have been several studies about how sleep deprivation and misaligned physiological process could be the cause and not just a symptom of conditions like Alzheimer’s, autism and depression.
Hopefully, 2019 is the year society changes it perception and treatment of late chronotypes. New medical breakthroughs and genetic discoveries validate the physiological differences night owls have from typical sleepers. For late chronotypes, being able to PROVE the state of an individual’s internal physiological clock is critical. Night owls should be able to defend their nocturnal nature and fight for accommodations so that they are no longer discriminated against at work, school and home.
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