Night owls don't have it easy. After all, few people can choose to show up at work or school late. And that night-owl tendency--sleep doctors call it a "delayed sleep phase," in which you go to bed and rise late--is hard to change. "Some people have this tendency right from the minute they come out of the womb," says Dr. Nancy Collop, director of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Sleep Disorders Center in Baltimore. However, staying up late and hauling yourself out of bed painfully in the morning is a bad idea: adults typically need seven or eight hours of sleep a night, and chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to a range of risks, from car accidents to obesity and depression. Fortunately, a few easy steps Collop recommends can help shift the body's internal clock and win you some precious dreamtime.
1. Routine, Routine: Try to get up at the same time each day--even on weekends and days off. Disruptions in your schedule could throw off the body's sleep pattern for weeks.
2. Let the Sun Shine In: Sleep in a room with eastern exposure, and with the blinds up, so the morning sun shines in. Light is how the body sets its clock. Or, if your room lacks early sun, invest in a "light box" that greets you with full-spectrum light mimicking the sun. Light boxes typically shine 2,000 to 10,000 lux, depending on how far away you sit. Collop recommends an hour of 2,500 lux each morning, but even a half hour will help. Although some people can reduce the time they sit before the light box as the body adjusts; many relapse quickly into their old sleep habits when they stop using the light box altogether.
An ordinary lamp won't do the trick. However, at night it may be helpful to avoid spending too much time in stores with bright lighting in the evening. One 2003 study of Japanese junior-high-school students concluded that those who went to convenience stores after sunset stayed up longer and slept less.
3. Get Some Extra Help: Sleeping pills may be needed to get to sleep in the evening, but ideally only temporarily to establish the desired routine. A time-released drug may help by keeping the level of the medication even through the night.
4. Noises Off: Don't read or watch TV in bed. Use the bed for sleeping (and of course, sex).
5. Smart Snacks: Don't eat large meals late at night--but small snacks before bed are sometimes helpful, says Collop. Foods containing the amino acid tryptophan such as turkey and milk may help. Avoid alcohol. Although it induces sleepiness, once the effect wears off, booze interferes with sleep.
6. Curb the Caffeine: Don't rely on coffee. Small amounts can help in the morning, but night owls shouldn't drink coffee in the afternoon.
7. Wind Down, Not Up: Don't exercise near bedtime, as exercise raises the body temperature and can interfere with sleep.
8. Get Help: Consult a sleep specialist if you're having trouble getting into a sleep routine. And persistent sleepiness despite a good night's sleep may be a sign of a serious sleep disorder or other health condition
9. Don't Be Hard on Yourself: Morning slowness doesn't mean you are lazy or apathetic about your day. Night-owl tendencies are estimated to be at least 50 percent genetic in origin, says Steven Brown, a sleep exert at the University of Zurich. You may find rising early a struggle for much of your life. But even night owls often naturally shift toward earlier bedtimes and rising as they age, typically after 60.