A recently published study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (April 15)1 reports that night owls suffer more severe symptoms than other types of insomnia. This may not be news to night owls - they're all too familiar with insomnia problems. But it does point out that late night insomnia is associated with greater risks for depression, irritability, more erratic bedtime and wake behavior, etc. Night owls also tend to be more concerned about their sleep problems and spend more of their time unsuccessfully trying to sleep.
One reason insomnia hits night owls worse is because they constantly battle with trying to fall asleep; after all, at least those with early morning or intermittent insomnia are able to get some sleep before struggling with unwanted wakefulness. So although all groups have about the same lack of sleep, night owls are more aware of it. They are more concerned about their lack of sleep than others, which may lead to frustration, irritability and depression. The authors of the study, Dr's Ong and Manber at Stanford University's sleep center, agreed that night owls were more obsessed with their sleep problems, and this added worry perpetuated the sleep problem.
Stanford's sleep doctors investigated 312 patients over a five year period, and noted that they fell into one of three major chronotypes; night owls (late night insomnia), morning larks (early morning insomnia) and intermediate insomniacs ( mid-sleep awakening). Chronotype refers to the sleep/wake center in our brains that regulates our sleep and wake behavior. Many of us have sleep problems because this 'body clock' isn't functioning properly.
Most people's body clocks run a bit slow, and so their daily cycle (or circadian rhythm), releases the sleep/wake signals later than normal. This is why night owls can't seem to wind down till late at night and then struggle to get up when they are supposed to in the morning. No matter how hard they try to fall asleep at the right time of day, they can't because their body clock hasn't released the right sleep neurotransmitters. This is also why morning time can be so difficult; at 7:00 am, their body clock may still think it's midnight and not be ready to release the active, energetic signals for hours. This also explains why changing your behavior doesn't work (going to bed earlier, using relaxation techniques, etc.).
Some people's body clocks tend to run a bit fast, which means they tire and fall asleep easily, but wake up earlier than desired. In fact, as we age, more of us experience this early morning insomnia. In this case the body clock releases the nighttime hormones and neurotransmitters long before we are ready to go to sleep. The result is that by the time 'morning larks' fall asleep, their body clock may already be halfway through its sleep cycle, and so they wake up far too early. Again in this case modifying behavior will do little to fix the problem.
The third chronotype, intermediate insomnia, is less common and falls somewhere in-between delayed and advanced circadian rhythm disorders. Intermediate chronotypes may exhibit signs of either delayed or advanced problems, but usually awaken in the middle of the night and fall asleep again.
The good news is that researchers have learned how body clocks work and how to regulate them. Because the body clock sends out daily sleep/wake signals, it looks for feedback or cues to tell it what time it is. The most powerful cue is bright light like morning sunshine, but researchers have discovered that a specific color and intensity found in sunshine is responsible for this beneficial reaction.
In 2001 researchers discovered that a special receptor in the eye was responsible for signaling the body clock, and this 'melanopsin' receptor was sensitive to light-blue light. This discovery is called the 'action spectrum of light ', and scientists use this light to reset the body clock. Because the action spectrum is so effective, only 15 minutes daily exposure is needed to keep body clocks working properly.
Since people's body clocks act differently, light therapy needs to be used at certain times of the day. For example, for those with slow body clocks (delayed circadian rhythms), morning light is best. For morning larks, evening light slows down the body clock, allowing it to release the sleep signals later into the night and early morning, like normal.
Apollo has worked closely with the researchers who discovered the action spectrum of light and has developed light therapy products with advanced technology to deliver this specific color and intensity of light. Apollo also provides an online assessment so people can know exactly which time of day is best to use their light. Perhaps the best news is that for most people, with just a few minutes of light therapy a day, within a few days, their body clocks will start responding, and improve their sleep.