Can You Retrain Your Body Clock In Three Weeks?

Experts claim they can turn night people into morning people in just 21 days. But could the plan work for our night owl?
Can You Retrain Your Body Clock In Three Weeks?

As soon as the sun rises, I hide under my duvet. If I must emerge, I put the kettle in the fridge and wear jumpers inside out. At night, I could run a marathon and write a novel… it wouldn’t be good, but it would get done. Like one in four of us, I’m a night person. An owl, with fewer feathers. When I worked from home, this wasn’t a problem. On weekdays, I’d write in the evenings, undistracted by emails. On weekends, I’d be the last person at a party. But earlier this year, I got an office job – 9.30am to 6pm – and it was miserable. So when I read about a regime that could turn me into a morning person,* I wanted in.
The plan, devised by experts at the universities of Birmingham and Surrey, and Monash University in Australia, aimed to bring people’s body clocks forward by two hours. After three weeks, night people, they said, would be able to focus better in the mornings, feel more awake during the day and less stressed. Because as much as I like the nights, they don’t like me – studies show that night people have a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and mental health issues. Could I really change the habit of a lifetime? It was time to find out. 

WEEK 1

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When the alarm goes off at 6am, I fling back the curtains. Sunlight stimulates cortisol (the stress hormone we need to wake up) and suppresses melatonin (the hormone that tells us to go to sleep). It’s two hours before I need to get up to go to work, and four hours before I’d prefer to get up – at 10am. I throw on some clothes and dash off to a HIIT class, rushing back two minutes later to pick up my work bag. I’m thankful it isn’t the dead of winter – it’s not quite pitch black, but I’ve vowed to get a blue-light-emitting lamp, as they replicate the effect of sunshine.

After the class, I bounce into work. I pass on coffee, brainstorm ideas and arrange interviews. I break for lunch at 1pm, returning to find my energy has waned. Usually, this is the start of when my focus peaks. But my eyes glaze over. I reread the same article until I can go home. I have dinner and am so tired, I crawl into bed at 8pm, two hours before the curfew of my new regime (and five hours earlier than my usual bedtime of 1am). The next day I swap exercise for breakfast. Normally, I don’t eat anything at this hour, but research tells me that in order to shift my internal body clock (known as our “circadian rhythm”) I must shift everything else – from exercise to meal times. According to experts, what we eat doesn’t actually matter in this context, it’s all about when we eat it.† I butter bagels and mash avocado, but can’t face eating it, so I wrap it up for lunch and go to work. I feel OK in the morning, but by lunchtime, I’m flagging again. I make it through the afternoon with the help of a strong coffee at 2.55pm (allowed), and another at 5pm (forbidden). I have a late meeting and get home at 8pm. It feels like midnight. Yet as the days continue, I see a gradual difference. I fire off lots of emails in the morning, instead of mindlessly moving around files into folders on my screen, and can feel my productive hours shifting ever earlier.
By the weekend, I’m craving a lie-in, but I resist. At 7am on Saturday, I’m cleaning my flat. That evening I’m not so virtuous. I go to a birthday dinner. It’s well after 7pm when I order but I skip drinking (it can disrupt sleep) and leave at midnight. The next day I feel terrible. I was still enjoying birthday-cake crumbs at 10.30pm (three and a half hours after my food cut-off time), and wasn’t asleep until 2am. My body is confused. Switching between my old routine and my new one doesn’t make for a restful night.

WEEK 2

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I haven’t gone outside with my jumper on the wrong way for at least two days. But after a positive first week, my disruptive weekend seems to have thrown my body into confusion and my sleep is disturbed. If I’m not struggling to drop off, I’m waking up at 3am, and lying there in a foggy haze until I have to get up. I decide to look more closely at my evening routine. The experts’ plan dictates a lack of light. It means no Netflix and closing the curtains two hours before bed, at 8pm. I dim the lights but I’m virtually in the dark. It’s way too dark to read. I light a Jo Malone candle, but now my bedroom smells distractingly like roasted chestnut. I do everything else I’ve read might help – meditation, putting lavender oil on my pillow, playing whale music. It strikes me that I’ve turned my one-bed flat into a low-end spa, and I consider adding it to Treatwell, before realising I’m not allowed to use my phone.
I speak to Dr Neil Stanley, a sleep expert, to find out what I should do about my restless nights. When I wake up should I try to go back to sleep? “If your worries are minor and fleeting, stay in bed,” he tells me. “But the minute you start hating your pillow, get up. You’ll never get back to sleep in that state.”
He suggests going into the living room to read or even doing some work – anything to distract my whirring mind.

WEEK 3

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In a bid to tackle my restless nights, I’m monitoring my sleep using the Sleep Cycle app. Dr Stanley says that sleep trackers are the devil in a nightgown because they can make you anxious that you’re not sleeping well – and then you really don’t sleep well. But I like mine. Then a friend has an idea: we’ll
both swap graphs in the morning. Being competitive, I’d be a regular sleeper in no time. On Tuesday, I sleep through. I feel like I’ve turned a corner. I achieve the very definition of a good night’s sleep (an early night, an early morning and eight hours of uninterrupted shut-eye) – and it’s the first I’ve had in years. By Thursday, I’m waking up just before my alarm goes off at 7am (the 6am starts were absurd). Dr Stanley says this is because our body starts preparing to wake up 90 minutes before we actually open our eyes and it’s clocked my routine. This suggests I’m waking up at a natural point in my sleep cycle. I’m still pretty grumpy and Dr Stanley tells me this is caused by sleep inertia – the time when part of our brain is still waking up. This usually takes five to 30 minutes, but can take up to four hours. By Friday, I find myself walking rather than dragging myself to my desk. The plan, despite a few ups and downs, appears to have worked – finally I’m a lark.

WHAT'S NEXT?

I wonder how long I’ll need to keep this routine up for before I become a natural morning person, without the lifestyle restrictions. The bad news is that I might be a night owl at heart forever, says Dr Andrew Bagshaw, co-author of the study. “Your natural drive might always be geared towards late bedtimes and we don’t know what will happen if night people relax the regime.” But there is hope. The more I stick to the rules, he says, “particularly when it comes to exercising”, the more likely I am to maintain my lark habits. “If you see a benefit, you’ll want to change.” And after seeing the change over the past three weeks, I agree. I consider my options…

I’ve seen the importance of giving my body clues to what time of day it is, using light, food and air (almost as if I were a plant) and sticking to a routine. The thing is, I could stop eating before 7pm every night but I like going out for dinner. I could avoid coffee in the afternoon but I sometimes crave a pick-me-up. I could get up early at weekends but what about lie-ins? Ultimately, I don’t want to let go of life’s small pleasures. But I don’t want to go back to hating mornings, either. It’s about balance and at least I now have an arsenal of sleep tricks and tools that I can use when I need them. Even if I do have the odd day off.