Beyond early bird or night owl: Expert says there are 4 types of sleepers

Most people have traditionally believed that there are two sorts of sleepers: early birds and night owls. That theory has been around for ages, and lots of us probably identify with one of those two categories. However, one of the nation’s leading sleep experts suggests that this prevalent belief is not entirely accurate. In fact, buying into it may actually be hurting our health. 

“I used to think that there were only two chronotypes myself,” says sleep specialist and best-selling author Dr. Michael Breus. “I used to think there were only early bird and night owl. And then I had a patient come in, who was a classic insomniac... And when my methods for working with her weren’t working well, I dug into the literature to understand what was going on. And I discovered that there were actually four different chronotypes: the early one, which I’m calling the lion; the middle, which is a bear; the late evening people, which are wolves; and then there are the insomniacs, which are dolphins.” 

It turns out that roughly 15 percent of people are lions (the category more commonly known as “early birds”). Another 15 percent of people are wolves. About 50-55 percent of people are bears. And somewhere between 10-15 percent of people are dolphins. That means, the vast majority of people — in this case, bears, who are most energetic in midday — were not accurately reflected in the old way of thinking.

“What was so fascinating,” explains Breus, “was that the previous conceptualization only looked at timing, your circadian rhythm. It never took into account sleep drive.” He says sleep drive is predetermined by the PER3 gene and the buildup of a naturally-occurring chemical called adenosine in the body.

Taking sleep drive into account, Breus worked with the global grooming brand Braun to make recommendations for how people can better customize their morning routines, based on their sleep chronotype. They call this approach Morning by Design, and it takes into account things like lifestyle, diet and exercise habits.

gettyimages-526790214.jpg

“Lion” types are early risers.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

“Lions rarely have problems in the mornings ‘cause they’re my early risers,” explains Dr. Breus. “They get up around 5:30 and they’re ready to go. So, one of the things that I’ve been teaching my lions, which most people don’t really think about, is I actually have them exercise in the afternoon or early evenings. It turns out that if they exercise later, it actually helps them extend their day and they can stay up a little later because, socially, that’s become a problem for lions.”

For dolphins — those late-night loving, problem sleepers — it’s important to eat a high-protein breakfast. An omelette with avocado, for example, would be a good choice.

For bears, who Breus describes as fun-loving people with easy-going attitudes, it’s important to wake up without hitting the snooze button. Bears should then drink a glass of water, before they reach for a cup of coffee.

0914-ctm-breusscreengrabbear.jpg

“Society works around the bear’s schedule, so they’re getting up around 7:30,” says Breus. “One of the first things I’m asking them to do is to hydrate. When you’re sleeping at night — when you breathe out, the humidity in your breath — you actually lose almost a liter of water each night. So, when you wake up, your lips are dry because you’re dehydrated. I’m asking people to grab a bottle or glass of water, and drink that all the way down. Caffeine is a diuretic, so if all you’re doing in the morning is drinking coffee, you’re actually making yourself even more dehydrated.”

And his wake-up advice for wolves, who thrive in the late evening? 

“Walk over to the window and get some direct sunlight,” says Breus. “It turns out that direct sunlight hits very specialized cells in your eyes and turns that melatonin faucet off in the morning, which is the one of the big problems that wolves have because we’re not morning people. One of the other things I ask my wolves to do is take a cool, not cold but cool, shower in the morning. It turns out that hot water makes people feel sleepy. And if you’ve already got a sleepy wolf in the morning, you don’t want to make them any sleepier.”

gettyimages-478405277.jpg

“Wolves,” in Dr. Breus’ system, are people who thrive in the late evenings.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

So, how do you figure out which chronotype you are? There’s a simple quiz on Breus’ website. And you might be surprised to learn that the questions aren’t all related to sleep. Questions like, ‘Are you a risk taker?’ and, ‘Are you often the last one on the dance floor?’ factor in too.

“I ask people, ‘What is your favorite meal of the day?’, explains Breus. “Now, that doesn’t seem like it would have anything to do with your chronotype or with your sleep, but it turns out, as an example, wolves hate to eat breakfast. They’re always going to choose lunch or dinner. So, I’m looking for personality habits, as well as sleep-related scheduling. Different types of personality characteristics can be pretty revealing.”