What it’s like living with a chronic circadian rhythm problem.
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — It’s hard to feel normal when you wake up at 4 p.m. every day.
No, I’m not a nurse who works the evening shift. No, I’m not the hard-partying heir to a Brazilian agribusiness fortune. And before you think it, I’m not lazy, either — I’ve written seven books so far! I sleep until the late afternoon because I’ve finally learned, after fighting it for years, that it’s better to come across as pathetic than to be always exhausted, depressed or sick.
I have a severe case of delayed sleep phase syndrome, a chronic misalignment of the body’s circadian rhythms with the daily light-dark cycle of our environment. The phrase “night owl” doesn’t really do it justice; my natural bedtime is around 6 a.m. While we as a culture are gradually becoming more aware of the many ways that bodies can differ from the norm, much of the world still takes for granted that people sleep at night and are awake during the day.
Not me. I miss having lunch.
According to conventional wisdom, going to bed early and waking up with the birds is a mere matter of habit and will power. This misconception is widespread, even among doctors. And for a long time, I believed it.
I spent years taking melatonin and Ambien in order to fall asleep by 2 a.m.; I used to wake up at 11 a.m. and then spend the rest of the day on stimulants such as Provigil and Ritalin. Yet I was always tired and depressed — the outcome that so often results when we try to force ourselves to be different from what we naturally need to be.
The last two decades have seen rapid advances in the field of chronobiology, the study of the biochemical clocks that keep our natural physiological rhythms. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine, for instance, was awarded to three American geneticists for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythms in fruit flies.
What we’ve learned from this research is that circadian rhythms affect not only when we wake and when we sleep, but almost every facet of how we live. They regulate, among other things, body temperature, the cardiovascular and digestive systems, behavior and locomotive activity, and metabolic, cognitive and immune functions.
There are variations on the spectrum of what’s normal — people can be naturally more inclined toward morningness or eveningness. And circadian rhythms, though they mostly come built-in, can be adjusted, somewhat. Sunlight leads to wakefulness; cooler temperatures push people toward sleep.
This is why standard-type insomniacs are encouraged to practice what is known as “sleep hygiene”: avoiding artificial light at night, for instance, or other forms of stimulation.
But this sort of thing does not work for me.
My sleep routine is more hygienic than the middle of an operating theater. (In fact, I’m writing this essay using blue-light blocking glasses, which might not be super effective, but at least they are bright orange and make me look like a visitor from the future. Small joys!) I could lie perfectly still at night for hours, listening to classical music or meditating, and I wouldn’t fall asleep until my body says it’s time…