Learn how to work with—not against—your body’s natural rhythms.
Do you eagerly jump out of bed at sunrise and instantly feel ready to face the day? Or are you more apt to hit snooze repeatedly, drag your way through the morning, and hit your stride midday … or perhaps not until 8 or 9 p.m.?
In this Fit for Life Challenge video, fitness expert David Jack shares how your circadian rhythms, or your body’s natural processes that occur on a 24-hour cycle, can affect your sleep.
Whether you’re an early to bed, early to rise kind of person—or not—is actually written in your genes, says Michael Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and sleep expert. Numerous studies have examined so-called sleep chronotypes and found that most people fall into one of four main categories.
This knowledge has been around for almost 40 years, but Breus decided to make them more understandable to laypeople by assigning an animal to each type, as he explains in his book, The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype—and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More.
While you’ve certainly heard about early birds and night owls, Breus uses four distinct animals—lions, wolves, bears, and dolphins—to more accurately describe each sleep chronotype.
Embrace your (sleep) spirit animal, Breus says, and you’ll be more likely to slumber more soundly—and wake up ready to crush your day.
Sleep Type #1: The Lion
In nature, lions hunt before dawn, so people who meet the lion chronotype wake up very early. They also tend to hit the hay early. “Dinner and a movie is out,” Breus says. “They’re exhausted and they know it, so they might say they’re pooped at 8 or 9 p.m. and just go to bed.”
While anyone can be a lion—Breus estimates that about 15 to 20 percent of the population falls into this category—many people start to become lions as they get older. “Over time, circadian rhythms shift, and a lot of seniors start going to bed at 8 p.m. and waking up at 4 or 5 a.m.,” he says.
As long as you listen to your body’s signals, turn in when you get tired, and wake up feeling well rested, that’s not a bad thing. Lions tend to know how much sleep they need and get it.
“A lot of people wish they were lions,” Breus says. “They have lion envy!”
Sleep Type #2: The Wolf
Wolves are nocturnal creatures, so people who classify as wolves are those you’ll find happily burning the midnight oil. “Wolves hate mornings and get their energy in the evening,” says Breus, who admits that he’s part of the 15 percent of the population in this category. But there a few key challenges that come with being a wolf.
One is that wolves don’t always get enough rest, perhaps because society (job, family, other obligations) forces you to get out of bed earlier than you’d like. “Lions and bears usually have five 90-minute sleep cycles during the night, but wolves and dolphins only have four, so they’re off by 90 minutes,” Breus says.
Lions also have to combat the perception that they’re just lazy. You can’t force yourself to be a morning person, and if you insist that a wolf get to work or the gym by 8 a.m., you’re apt to see lackluster performance.
Breus’s advice if you’re a member of the wolf pack: Educate others about when you hit your peak so they can tailor their requests (and expectations) accordingly. “I actively let people know that you’re not going to get the best me at 7 a.m.,” he says.
Sleep Type #3: The Bear
Bears are in the middle ground between the early-rising lions and nocturnal wolves, and they make up almost 50 percent of the population.
“Most bears go to bed around 10:30 p.m. and wake up around 7 a.m.,” he says. “They tend to be slightly extroverted, be productive at work, and enjoy parties and going out to dinner—which makes sense because it’s a bear’s world,” Breus says. “A 9-to-5 work schedule is perfect for a bear.”
That said, bears can still have a hard time getting out of bed or staying alert during evening events. Two tweaks can help you start your engines, Breus says.
Expose yourself to sunlight within 30 minutes of getting up—it lets your body know it’s go time. If you can’t go outdoors, open the blinds to let the sunshine in.
And wait 90 minutes before having your first cup of coffee. “When you first wake up, your cortisol and adrenaline levels are quite high; it’s how the body pulls itself out of a state of unconsciousness,” he explains. But within 90 minutes, those hormones drop off, so you’ll be ready for an energy boost from caffeine.
Sleep Type #4: The Dolphin
Dolphins are pretty interesting animals. Sure, they’re smart, but they also sleep in a unique way: Half of their brain stays asleep while the other half is awake and looking for predators, Breus says.
That might work well in the ocean, but if you’re a human, you don’t want to be among the 10 percent who match the dolphin chronotype. It essentially means you’re half awake and half asleep most of the time. In other words, you’re an insomniac.
Some seniors who were previously bears, wolves, or even lions start to turn into dolphins as they age, perhaps because sleep has become physically uncomfortable due to illness or injury or because one or more of the medications they take has the side effect of keeping them up.
If you’re a dolphin, it’s a good idea to let your doctor know that you’re having trouble snoozing. Also let your doctor know if you’re experiencing other symptoms even if they don’t seem related to sleep, and provide a list of all your medications, including prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, and supplements. These tips can help you prep for a conversation with your doctor.
In the meantime, be sure to aim for consistency—that means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. No need to force yourself to bed too early though. “It sounds counterintuitive, but if you get in bed before you’re sleepy, it raises your autonomic arousal,” says Breus, meaning you’ll get stressed and are more apt to end up staring at the ceiling all night long.
Not sure which chronotype you match? Click here to take a 45-second quiz to find out.