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Understanding Chronotype: Harnessing Our Inner Clocks for Better Health and Productivity

Updated: Mar 11


A bear taking a nap, sleeping

Have you ever noticed how some people are bright and energetic at the crack of dawn while others can't seem to hit their stride until the evening? This phenomenon isn't just a matter of personal preference or habit—it's deeply rooted in our biology and is known as our chronotype.


Chronotype: Your Personal Timekeeper

Chronotype refers to the behavioral manifestation of our internal circadian rhythms, which governs our preferred timing for sleep and activities over a 24-hour period [1]. Essentially, it's your body's own scheduling assistant, determining whether you're an early bird who catches the worm or a night owl who comes alive when the stars come out.


The Varieties of Chronotypes

Generally, chronotypes are categorized into three types:

  • Morning types (M-types) are often referred to as "larks". Larks are early risers who tend to have their peak productivity in the morning.

  • Evening types (E-types) are typically called "owls". Owls are individuals who tend to be more alert and oriented towards the evening or night.

  • Neither types (N-types) tend to have a more balanced energy distribution throughout the day [5].


Chronotypes In Animal Form

In The Power of When by Dr. Michael Breus, he identifies four different chronotypes, each named after an animal whose sleep-wake habits best mimic the characteristics of the chronotype. Here are the four chronotypes according to Dr. Breus:

  1. Dolphin Chronotype: Dolphins are light sleepers and often have difficulty sticking to a strict sleep schedule. They are typically described as having a tendency towards insomnia, are most alert late at night, and their productivity can be unpredictable throughout the day.

  2. Lion Chronotype: Lions are early risers with a lot of energy in the morning, but they tend to get tired and turn in early. They are the equivalent of the morning type (M-type) and are most productive in the first half of the day.

  3. Bear Chronotype: Bears follow the sun and have a sleep-wake pattern tied to the rise and fall of the sun. They need a full eight hours of sleep, wake up in a daze, but then get on a roll and have a steady rhythm of sleep and wakefulness. This is the most common chronotype, aligning with the societal expectations of a typical workday.

  4. Wolf Chronotype: Wolves are the equivalent of the evening type (E-type) and have a hard time waking up early. They are most energetic and creative in the late evening or night. Wolves might struggle with traditional work hours and can be very productive at night.


Peaks and Valleys: Energy Levels Throughout the Day

Your chronotype significantly affects your peak productivity times:

  • M-types typically peak in energy levels early and see a gradual decrease.

  • E-types experience an increase in energy throughout the day, peaking in the afternoon or evening.

  • N-types may not experience significant peaks and troughs but rather a steadier energy level[5].


The Genetic Tapestry of Chronotype

Is your chronotype a family trait? Research suggests yes—chronotype has a genetic component, with specific genetic loci identified that contribute to individual chronotype differences [4][6]. This interplay between genetics and chronotype implies that your inclination towards morning or evening activities is partially inherited.


Nature vs. Nurture: The Chronotype Balance

While genetics play a role, environmental factors also significantly influence chronotype. Light exposure, work schedules, and lifestyle choices can all affect your body's internal clock. Balancing these factors with your natural preferences can lead to better health outcomes and higher productivity.


Tailoring Your Schedule to Your Chronotype

Understanding your chronotype isn't just academic; it can be applied to optimize your daily routine:

  • M-types might schedule challenging tasks in the morning when their energy levels are highest.

  • E-types could benefit from planning important activities during the late afternoon or evening.

  • N-types might find success in evenly spreading out tasks throughout their day.

Adjusting your life to fit your chronotype can enhance well-being and efficiency. For instance, if you're an E-type forced into an early bird world, shifting your work hours, if possible, or tailoring your environment to match your energy patterns can make a world of difference [5].


Chronotype and Health: Why It Matters

Your chronotype isn't just about when you feel most alert—it's also about your health. Studies show that E-types may have a higher risk of metabolic disorders, obesity, and mental health issues compared to M-types [1][2][3]. Aligning your lifestyle habits, including meal and sleep times, with your chronotype can help mitigate some of these risks.


Conclusion

Embracing your chronotype means listening to your body's natural rhythms and adjusting your daily life to sync with your internal clock. Whether you're an M-type, E-type, or N-type, understanding and respecting your chronotype can lead to a healthier, more productive life.


 

References

  1. Lotti, S., Pagliai, G., Colombini, B., Sofi, F., & Dinu, M. (2021). Chronotype Differences in Energy Intake, Cardiometabolic Risk Parameters, Cancer and Depression: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis of Observational Studies. Advances in nutrition.

  2. Yu, J., Yun, C., Ahn, J. H., Suh, S., Cho, H., Lee, S. K., Yoo, H. J., Seo, J., Kim, S., Choi, K., Baik, S., Choi, D., & Shin, C. (2015). Evening chronotype is associated with metabolic disorders and body composition in middle-aged adults. The Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism.

  3. Vitale, J. A., & Weydahl, A. (2017). Chronotype, Physical Activity, and Sport Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine.

  4. Lane, J. M., Vlasac, I. M., Anderson, S. G., Kyle, S. D., Dixon, W., Bechtold, D. A., Gill, S., Little, M. A., Luik, A., Loudon, A., Emsley, R., Scheer, F., Lawlor, D. A., Redline, S., Ray, D., Rutter, M. K., & Saxena, R. (2016). Genome-wide association analysis identifies novel loci for chronotype in 100,420 individuals from the UK Biobank. Nature Communications.

  5. Fischer, D., Lombardi, D. A., Marucci-Wellman, H. R., & Roenneberg, T. (2017). Chronotypes in the US – Influence of age and sex. PLoS ONE.

  6. Kalmbach, D. A., Schneider, L. D., Cheung, J., Bertrand, S. J., Kariharan, T., Pack, A. I., & Gehrman, P. R. (2017). Genetic Basis of Chronotype in Humans: Insights From Three Landmark GWAS. Sleep.


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