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Science Explains: waking up to why morning starts are not for everyone

‘The early bird catches the worm’ can be extremely difficult, especially if you are not a ‘morning person’. For so many, setting alarms early in the morning to ensure we make it in time for our 9am seminars or even the 12pm lecture is a much harder prospect. Perhaps science itself presents the most useful explanation as to why we can wake up perfectly one morning but then struggle the next.

Our circadian system, also known as our ‘body clock’, is central to the process of waking up. It comprises of 20,000 nerve cells in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. This essentially keeps the body functioning throughout the day as it regulates hormone levels as well as food digestion and when tiredness sets in. But our circadian rhythm changes throughout our lives, as a 10-year-old’s biological wake up time is 6.30am in comparison to 8am for 16-year-olds and 9am for 18-year-olds. As we age, waking up in the morning tends to get easier because our bodies have climatized to our circadian rhythms changing.

Our circadian rhythm changes throughout our lives, as a 10-year-old’s biological wake up time is 6.30am in comparison to 8am for 16-year-olds and 9am for 18-year-olds

“There are morning people and evening people,” according to Sonia Ancoli-Israel, director of education at UC-San Diego’s Sleep Medicine Center. This distinction, known as ‘larks’ or ‘owls’, is affected by the circadian system. Larks, who are ‘phase advanced’, tend to feel tired early in the evening and are generally more productive at the start of the day. They have more quality matter which is integral for the communication of nerve cells since the brains of early and late risers vary in structure, a 2013 study found. Meanwhile, owls, generally teens and young adults, are ‘phase delayed’ so they do not feel tired until late at night. Most interestingly, extensive genetic research in 2012 uncovered a single nucleotide near a gene called ‘Period 1’ which determines whether you’re an owl, a lark, or somewhere between the two.

So why do we expect ‘owls’ to be alert in the morning, despite their genetic structure suggesting otherwise? The simple answer is we should not. People are more productive at certain times of the day depending on their chronotype, a study from researchers at the University of Sydney found, which observed the ‘chronotype diversity’ of people in various occupations. They cited an additional group, ‘intermediate’, referring to people whose energy suddenly peaked at midday. Most intriguingly, their findings revealed how interdependent tasks meant it is necessary for staff to share the same circadian cycle, so that they peak at the correct time. This is most applicable to emergency workers and surgical teams. But for professions which revolve around “sustained attention” and constant vigilance such as flight crews, nurses and surveillance police officers, having various workers who peak throughout the day is most beneficial.

People are more productive at certain times of the day depending on their chronotype

Adolescents effectively lose up to two hours of sleep every day, according to a leading neuroscientist. Dr Paul Kelley, a former head teacher, believes an early start can result in sleep deprivation. In truly scientific fashion, he tested his hypothesis and found the number of top grades rise by 19% after he moved the school day start time from 8.30am to 10am.

To wake up earlier and easier we must understand our body clocks. Having a consistent sleep schedule is one way to ensure we meet the minimum of seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Experts also advise avoiding light before bed, as light receptors in the eye send messages to the brain telling it when it is time to sleep. While there’s no guarantee that following these steps will ensure you arrive on time for your Monday morning seminar, it may serve as extra motivation to do so.

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