Are You Really

a Night Person?

“I’m a night person,” is a frequent statement made by my patients when I try to assess their life-styles.  The statement is delivered in an offhand, sometimes boastful way.  But is it just imagination that these “night people” seem to have more frequent health problems than those who identify themselves as “morning people”?  Medical science cannot be built on such impressions or anecdotal information. 

Though about one-third of the average life is spent in sleep, scientists have only recently devoted intensive study to it.  Their research indicates that the health of our waking hours is profoundly affected by the quality of our sleep.  Sleep research laboratories have exploded some of the myths of sleep.

The myth of the eight-hour night. 

Health books and doctors have for decades preached the need for eight hours of sleep nightly.  Research indicates, however, that each individual has a unique time clock with variation from one to ten hours of sleep needed per calendar day.  Thomas Edison was said to require only one hour of sleep each night.  Harry Truman slept very short nights, but took brief catnaps.

The person who requires little sleep to remain healthy can become a tremendous achiever.  Unfortunately many become worried and neurotic because it has been drilled into them that so little sleep is unhealthy and unnatural.  One of my patients was a church organist who agonized since childhood because she could only sleep about three hours nightly.  Her well-meaning brother, a physician, loaded her with samples of every new sleeping medication to try to induce an eight-hour rest.  The combination of over medication and obsession with her insomnia severely blighted her health and service to Christ.

The myth of the night person. 

In medical school we were taught that people were divided into morning people who are most alert and active the first part of the day, and night people who tend to naturally awaken late and be alert far into the night.  Jokingly we were told that night people tend to marry morning people.

It was bewildering to me that in my childhood and youth, spend among rural agricultural societies in West China, Nebraska, and Thailand, there were initially no night people that I remember.  Being up and active at dawn was an accepted part of everyone’s life.  As electricity came into these areas and artificial daylight with night entertainment became widespread, night people began appearing.

Physiologists tell us that human beings are diurnal creatures.  Scientists classify living creatures into three rough groups: diurnal, or those adapted to daytime activity, crepuscular, or those active at dusk and dawn, and nocturnal, or those active at night.  Studies of the light receptors—rods and cones—in the eye, body chemistry, and other adaptations confirm that man was created to be active in the daylight.

When does being a night or morning person become a spiritual issue?  Only when one’s sleep habits represent poor stewardship of one’s body/temple or become a hindrance to one’s Christian witness can it be deemed a legitimate concern.

I recall the tragedy of a failed ministry in our area where a very bright and capable preacher alienated the early-rising farmers and small town business people of his congregation.  He was never accessible before 11:00 AM and very soon lost his effectiveness in the community.

A missionary we knew missed great opportunities for service to the people of his area.  The rice farmers would come into the town where he lived to barter in the predawn fresh produce market.  By sunrise most of them had dispersed to work in their fields and orchards.  A few of the believers and seekers would use this early hour to congregate on the missionary’s veranda hoping for some words of counsel and encouragement.   After he stumbled out a few times, grumpy and irritated by their intrusion into his normal sleeping time, the visits ceased.  When he was finally up and ready to work, these people were out in their fields, no longer accessible to him.

Poor Richard’s proverb, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” seems to be borne out by current medical and psychological research.  From a health standpoint early risers have been shown to have less depression, fewer marital problems, less alcohol abuse and longer life expectancy.  Studies at Texas Tech University in Lubbock have shown that early risers excel in both academic and business achievements.  Factory shift workers who work the late shift and sleep during the day are especially susceptible to emotional and physical illness.

My own progression from morning person to night person can be easily traced.  In rural Nebraska it was a normal part of life to rise before dawn to feed the livestock and deliver newspapers.  High school led to later and later hours with parties, ball games, and other social activities.  Morning rising time became progressively later.

In college, dating and general gregariousness meant that serious study did not begin until after 10:00 PM.  Bedtime was in the wee small hours, and wake-up time was the last possible moment before the first class.  Medical school and internship fed the late-night syndrome.  Even today, night call and delivering babies tend to make it very difficult to percolate the next morning.

Sleep researchers have defined different brain wave patterns associated with the five states of healthy sleep.  Most important of these are the REM (rapid eye movement) and delta stages.  Dreaming occurs during the REM stage and seems to be an essential safety valve to emotional health.  Delta sleep represents the deepest and most restorative part of our sleep cycle.  People deprived of delta sleep seem especially prone to depression.

Delta sleep is most effective in the hours preceding midnight.  One of the most alarming health trends in America is the growing rate of deep depression in adolescents.  Promiscuity, drug abuse, and suicide are destructive activities associated with this depression.  Many of us believe that the fact that few adolescents get to bed before midnight may be an important factor.

In the Scriptures, early morning was a prime time for devotional worship.  Samuel’s parents and Job used this as a time of worship (1 Samuel 1:19; Job 1:5).  David stated, “Morning by morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; morning by morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation” (Psalm 5:3, NIV).  In Psalm 57:8 and 119:147 he speaks of dawn as a time for praise and requests.  Jesus is recorded as arising before dawn for a time of solitary prayer (Mark 1:35).  Many recent and contemporary Christian leaders have attested to the value and power of early morning devotions.

But what about those of us who find it especially difficult to be alert in the early hours?  Even though we are created to be daytime creatures, the fact remains that some of us are alert early in our day, while others achieve maximum alertness toward the later hours.  This is governed by the cyclical level of adrenalin and related compounds in our bloodstream.  Often my attempts to start the day with early morning devotions failed miserably.  I could never remember what verse I was reading or who I was praying for before I drifted back to sleep.

It is possible to reset our natural time clock (circadian rhythm) by taking a week’s vacation and going to bed three hours later each succeeding day.  Most of us would find this impractical, however.

How to Improve.

Let me share some things that have helped me restore joy to my mornings and spiritual order to my day.

1.      I take no caffeine or other stimulants in the afternoon or evening.  Caffeine eliminates the delta waves and causes most people to be less alert the following morning.


2.      I discipline myself to abandon the fascinating activities of the evening at a regular time and go to bed at the time that will afford an optimum night’s rest.


3.      I lay out my exercise clothes at the bedside and tell myself before I go to sleep that I must get up and exercise in the morning.


4.      As soon as the alarm goes off I roll out and try to get into my exercise clothing as a reflex activity.


5.      After stretching, I jog through the predawn streets of our town using the running as a praise time.  As the dawn breaks and the birds sing, I gain the distinct impression that God is a morning person!


6.      I return home with the oxygen and adrenalin flowing, awake, joyful, and ready to tackle the Scripture meditation and intercession which require my utmost alertness.  Committing the day to Him, I am ready to move forward in joyful partnership.

Garland Bare, MD

Christian Standard?

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