How To Hack Your Dietary Habits for Energetic Days and Restful Nights, Based on Your Sleep Chronotype
No, we're not talking about these animals in terms of astrology (though some of my fellow Leos could very well be a lion twice over) or an affinity for a given sports franchise. Instead, these are the four sleep chronotypes popularized by clinical psychologist Michael J. Breus, PhD, aka The Sleep Doctor.
Ahead, certified pediatric and adult sleep consultant and functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner Kelly Murray shares a few dietary hacks for each sleep chronotype (find a description of each one here). Discover how adopting these tips can help you feel more energized and less fatigued throughout the day, as well as enhance your social life and sleep quality.
First, a recap on the sleep chronotype theory
With all this talk about chronotypes and random animals, perhaps we’ve already lost you. ICYMI, chronotypes are the classification of the natural timing of your circadian rhythm. “Your circadian rhythm is your body's clock that dictates when you are sleepy, alert, and hungry,” Murray says. “It also controls the timing of digestion, body temperature, wound healing, and more.”
So where do the aforementioned animals come into play? “We used to think there were only two chronotypes—early birds and night owls—but we know humans are much more complicated than that,” Murray says. She mentions that Dr. Breus expanded upon these two definitions and identified four main chronotypes:
- Lions (early risers)
- Bears (who follow a typical solar schedule)
- Wolves (night owls)
- Dolphins (insomniacs)
The more you know about your sleep chronotype, the better you can adjust your lifestyle to align with your body’s natural rhythms—supporting everything from sleep and productivity to your workouts and even your sex life. Since your circadian rhythm also informs how hungry you are and when, you can modify your dietary habits based on your chronotype to help you feel and function your best. “By knowing your chronotype, you can learn how to make minor adjustments to the timing of your meals and what types of food you eat to maximize your energy during the day and sleep at night,” Murray shares.
Unsure of which sleep animal you are? Take this chronotype quiz, then read up on the dietary tips below.
How to adjust your diet to align with your sleep chronotype
Lions are go-getting, productive early risers. They’re pretty much ready to roar and slay the day as soon as they hop out of bed, which tends to be in the wee hours of the morning. “Being a lion is an advantage, but it can wreak havoc on your social life,” Murray explains. That’s because lions may burn out by the time they’re off the clock and may not have enough energy in the evening to see friends or be in peak shape for date nights.
If they want to keep up with their pals or S/O after the sun sets, Murray offers a few recommendations specific to meals. “I recommend eating a balanced lunch consisting of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates to stabilize their blood sugar and prevent an early evening energy crash,” she shares.
In addition, Murray says that lions may be better off limiting their intake of carbs at dinnertime. “Carbohydrates promote serotonin, which turns into melatonin, aka the sleep hormone,” she notes.
Bears comprise about half of the population, which works to their advantage as the standard nine-to-five work schedule fits their chronotype best. Murray says that bears often prefer to start their day with coffee, as they’re not as up and at ‘em upon waking as lions tend to be. However, drinking coffee shortly after waking can be tough on their adrenals, leaving them feeling jittery. “I recommend waiting 90 minutes before drinking coffee, as that is when their cortisol will naturally dip, giving them more bang for their buck,” Murray says. (Tip: Check out Dr. Breus’s guide to the best time to drink coffee, with recs for each sleep chronotype.)
Moreover, bears may find themselves prone to a late-afternoon slump around 3 p.m. “They may grab a sugary snack to perk themselves up, leading to a blood sugar [spike] and energy crash later in the day,” says Murray. To better sustain their energy, she suggests taking a quick, brisk walk outside instead. “Exercise and sunshine will boost your cortisol levels and give you the energy boost you crave,” she explains. Of course, bears can and should stock up on snacks to sustainably boost their energy (think: Greek yogurt and a banana).
Wolves are late to bed and late to rise, and they often feel most creative and productive in the evening. (FWIW, this wolf is currently typing away while most people have already finished their dinner.) According to Murray, wolves often lack an appetite in the morning and usually skip breakfast. “However, if they make an effort to eat a small balanced breakfast, the act of digesting food will trigger their body to produce cortisol, giving them a burst of energy,” she notes.
Another mealtime-specific hack for this chronotype: delaying dinner by a few hours. Murray says that wolves who eat dinner in the early evening—usually to accommodate eating with their family members—run the risk of waking up hungry later on in the night. This can be for whatever’s on hand and easy to accommodate their fix for a midnight snack. “Late-night eating sparks digestion, which will make it harder for them to fall asleep,” she explains. With that said, Murray suggests that wolves eat dinner around 8 p.m. to keep middle-of-the-night hunger pangs at bay and support optimal digestion and restful ZZZ’s.
P.S. A 2020 review on chronotypes and dietary patterns pretty much confirms Murray’s insights on wolves to a T. While the authors limit findings to morning types and evening types (versus specific animals), people in the latter group are more likely to skip breakfast and consume extra noshes at night… and also consume a lower amount of fruits and veggies and prefer sugary fare. (My fellow wolves: I see you.)
Dolphins have erratic sleep schedules, and most often won’t get the recommended eight hours or so of shuteye per night. “They’re perpetually tired so they reach for coffee all day long—but caffeine blocks adenosine, a chemical that inhibits brain function and makes us tired,” Murray explains. Plus, constantly chasing a caffeine rush can perpetuate the cycle of sleepless nights. “To ensure that they metabolize all of the caffeine they consume before bedtime, dolphins should stop drinking caffeine by noon,” she says.
“To ensure that they metabolize all of the caffeine they consume before bedtime, dolphins should stop drinking caffeine by noon.”
Dolphins may also benefit from tweaking what they choose to eat at dinnertime. “To keep their energy levels stable in the evening, they should eat starchy carbohydrates at dinner in moderation and eat a meal that consists of plenty of protein and veggies instead,” Murray says. Both of these tips can help dolphins fall asleep at an appropriate time and wake up feeling more rested.
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