Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome and Nocturnal Humans: Disorder or Nature?

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Some time ago I posited a theory that the epidemic of sleep disorders comes from the fact that some humans are naturally nocturnal (original article linked below). About six months after forming that theory, I once again fell into patterns of sleep that could be deemed “normal” – I went to bed around 9:00 or 9:30 at night and got up at 6:00 every morning. This led me to believe that perhaps my lifelong problems with insomnia (or, more accurately, hyposomnia) could just be the result of excessive stress and clinical depression.

The return to the “normal” schedule came on the heels of meeting a new significant person in my life, whom I later married. For nearly a year, sleeping at normal times worked just fine for me – in the past, bouts of normal night time sleeping only lasted for a couple of weeks, at most a couple of months. This lengthy stretch stirred hopes that it might be real, that maybe I could live as a normal diurnal member of society. That ended roughly 18 months ago, and I am once again faced with the reality that I can no longer ignore – I am, and probably always will be, a night creature.

My husband now fondly announces to family and friends that he has married a vampire. During the nights I am wide awake and exceptionally productive with work. Once the sun rises, my body shuts down. Every morning and afternoon is a struggle toward productivity, but the moment darkness falls the drowsiness falls away and it’s time to live. The only true sound sleep comes with the midday sun.

About Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

Sleeping pills don’t work, warm milk and a relaxing soak in the bubble bath doesn’t work, and nothing short of a solid knock on the head is likely to work at the time the rest of the family is going to bed. Sound familiar? Imagine my surprise when I realized that prestigious organizations and institutions know this exact set of symptoms – places like the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and the American Sleep Association. They call it delayed sleep phase syndrome, also commonly called delayed sleep phase disorder.

Delayed sleep phase syndrome is described as primarily a problem of adolescents and young adults. This particular group has a far higher percentage of people who stay up until the early morning hours and sleep through until the early afternoon hours. Such verbiage – and, I suspect, such data – suggests a very strong lifestyle correlation with delayed sleep phase syndrome. This can, perhaps, obscure what is likely a relatively very small percentage of people whose sleep cycles cannot be explained away by lifestyle.

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome Treatments

Several treatments are suggested for delayed sleep phase syndrome, including a process of pushing the sleep schedule forward a couple of hours every couple of days, ceasing to push forward once the desired hours are reached. Another suggests simply picking a schedule and sticking to it, come hell or high water. These don’t work? Many experts would suggest you’re not trying hard enough, or that you’re not committed enough to your normal schedule. Further treatment options may include light therapy to try to “re-set” your internal clock to its “normal” diurnal schedule, possibly in conjunction with melatonin supplements to help re-adjust your circadian rhythm.


Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome or Nocturnality?

They say that abnormal sleep phases for three months or more constitutes a disorder or syndrome. This can mean sleeping and waking too early, too late, around swing shifts, or while adjusting to new time zones. These are all forms of circadian rhythm disorder. Three months…what, then, does a lifetime of abnormal sleep cycles constitute? What happens when, regardless of time zone or light therapies, the sun always triggers sleep and the light of the moon and stars triggers increased activity? Most of the world still calls it a disorder – but then, how many labels have been given to traits that are normal in humans, but not “mainstream normality?”

This is where my line of thinking always hits a dead-end. The scientific community and most of the world has tentatively begun to look at the possibility, but few aside from those who have struggled with being nocturnal (or are possibly just realizing that they don’t actually have a disorder) seem to think that it can happen. This is not a matter of the body not knowing when the sun is out and when it’s not (a problem often associated with people who work indoors away from windows for extended periods of time), it’s the body responding to the sun the same way that experts say it should be responding to dark.

Let’s put this in perspective a little bit. I live in Wyoming, in the mountains of the US. During the summer, days stretch until 9:30 at night and the sun rises again around 6:00 in the morning. Throughout the winter, the sun may not rise until 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning and it will be gone again by 4:30 in the afternoon. By the natural order of circadian rhythm disorders, especially assuming someone is undergoing light therapy throughout these seasonal changes, the sleep and alert cycles should not change significantly if the lifestyle remains the same – yet in the summer I am alert and productive around 10:00 p.m., whereas winter sees that same alert productivity around 5:00 p.m., and that aside from Seasonal Affective Disorder complicating things.

You decide (and please post your comment below) – is there such a thing as nocturnal humans? If not, in your opinion, what “disorder” can explain this type of phenomenon? If so, what characteristics identify those who are nocturnal versus those whose lifestyles and sleep needs simply do not line up?

One person's take on delayed sleep phase

Hear from a professional on circadian rhythm disorders

More by this Author


Comments 9 comments

BlissfulWriter profile image

BlissfulWriter 5 years ago

I don't think humans are nocturnal by nature. Most people are productive during the day and sleepy at night. That is why night shift work is so difficult for most people.

Notice that I say "most" people. Because, in any general population, there are a wide spectrum and there are always exceptions. You may be one that is at the other end of the spectrum where you are productive at night. It may be normal in your case. And for those who are, they may be more able to tolerate night shift work.


wychic profile image

wychic 5 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming Author

I agree, certainly not all humans are nocturnal :). My original article on this subject looked at the 11 million some people in the US alone who suffer from "sleep disorders," and the possibility that a number of those (so far it looks like a fairly small percentage) are actually nocturnal. There are possible evolutionary/adaptive reasons for it, and the small numbers do make a lot of sense in that context as well. This is a project I started a couple of years ago and have been slowly trying to get a few more pieces out for feedback from others. Thanks :D.


jaycee 5 years ago

i think i am a natural night person...i can remember the year it started when i was in 9th grade or as some would say hitting puberty.... i have been to many doctors and been on every sleep and antidepressant there is with absolutely no luck 9 am come i am tired and want to sleep up by 3pm for the rest of the night.... i do believe a person can be naturally noctural but it is really hard when your a mom have family and no one not even doctors understand....


wychic profile image

wychic 5 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming Author

Agreed! I have two kids myself, and my husband is a morning person -- it's been hard with him ready to go to bed hours before I am, and then he's up long before I'm ready to be productive even if I can drag myself out of bed by then. He tends to feel put-upon because he ends up doing most or all of the childcare for the first couple of hours every day. He's also zooming and hard at work by time I'm halfway through my first cup of coffee and still trying to remember what day it is. By nightfall, I come to life and am ready to be social, do all of my work (we are both self-employed), and I'm much nicer to be around by then...and he's tired and worn out and just wants to go to bed.


Sa`ge profile image

Sa`ge 5 years ago from Barefoot Island

There are day and night people in this world. Each is productive during their time and un droductive when not. I am nocturnal as is half of my children and most of my grand children. We all have been like this even as little children. It is very hard on nocturnal children, they are forced by rules to perform diung the day hours and even if extremly talented will perform under par. This is something ithat is not looked into at all with children who do not perform well in school. They might just be nocturnal and if there were schools at night for kids we might see a great change in these kids.

maybe if there was night school the kids who hang out at night getting in trouble would be in school learning and becoming better people as adult. This is just my humble opinion and I really believe i am right on this.

Most extremely creative people work much better at night this is the great ones in both doing good as well as the criminally active ones.

Nocturnal people are forced out of their natural being by society's rules in order to survive and support their family and self, mistily to receive an education in order to be able to survive and be productive at all. hink about that one. :) hugs :)


SAD light 5 years ago

Hi

Delayed sleep phase syndrome is a circadian rhthym disorder. Although I don't think some people are naturally more nocturnal than others, some people are more light sensitive. When lifestyle factors disrupt their sleep, their melatonin (it induces sleepiness) levels become skewed, and it makes it harder to become a daytime person again.

Consequently, maintaining a regular bedtime and eliminating factors that are disrupting your sleep can help. If you're having problems resetting your melatonin production, SAD lights, especially blue wavelengths and wakeup lights are immensely helpful. For those who don't know what a wakeup light it, it is an alarm clock that uses light either prior to awakening or prior to going to bed to help reset your melatonin levels. By tricking your body into thinking the sun is rising or setting, they help you wake up easier, feel more refreshed, fall asleep easier, and sleep sounder. Although it may sound like a gimmick, it's not. They have helped countless people get back on track with their sleep.

Thanks for sharing this great article. Good luck!


Luna-girl 5 years ago

It's so good to read all of your comments and know that there are other vampire types out there!

I belive there is a difference between having nocturnal tendancies and sleep disorders. I have had a different 'body clock setting' from the day I was born (informs my mum!) and cannot remember ever going to bed before 3am, even as a child. Nowadays it's worse. I am often called an insomniac, but as i always say, I don't have problems with how I sleep or for how long, just with when I sleep.

I have tried sleep therapies and routines; sleeping meds(which only make me sleep deeper, rather than earlier) etc. I have gone without sleep in the hope that I can control my bedtime the following day and it doesn't work either, I can just feel my brain becoming more and more active as the evening draws in, no matter how tired i know i really am. All my best work is done at night. The problem is it's anti-social and i spend my time creeping around the house trying not to wake people up.

My biggest bug-bear is morning ppl(grrrrr) who accuse me of being lazy. What 'normal people' seem incapable of understanding is that just because i'm not awake at 7am when they are, doesn't mean I'm lazy, it's because I've just gone to bed. I have acheived so much in my life, and I have not done it by going to bed at 10pm like them. I have actually done everything on half the amount of sleep that they have, having to work to my own body clock, and still get up to fit in with society, so who's lazy?!!

I never encouraged my nocturnal tendancies by lifestyle, but years of wasting hours lying in bed hoping to fall asleep at a normal time have led me to realise I am wasting my time fighting it, and may aswell be up and productive. When people insinuate I'm out partying at night, I'm actually doing the dishes or planning the next day's dinner! Nothing lazy about that! Fight for nocturnal rights!!


wychic profile image

wychic 5 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming Author

Agreed! I am also often accused of being lazy when I get to bed a 3 or 4 and wake back up at 9 -- and it's usually accusations coming from the people who went to bed at 10 and woke up at 7. Do the math, people, I'm sleeping a heck of a lot less and getting a lot more done!


dianne 3 years ago

I have realized, at the ripe old age of 52, that i am helplessly nocturnal. Have been an R.N. for 31 years, 17 of those years I worked 7p-7a. They were probably my best years. But I raised four great kids on really very little sleep! I'm paying for it now. About to start another night shift E.R. job, my kids are grown, and i'm not skeered! Lots of good things about working nights. My new husband of two years gets up early and goes to bed early, but loves me for what I am. Can't ask for more than that! Peace.

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