Two years ago Gene Caballero noticed that he needed three or four cups of coffee every morning to get his brain going. Caballero, co-founder of GreenPal, a Nashville business that is like Uber for lawn care, wanted to have more get-up-and-go in the early hours of his day.
There’s a perception that early risers are more productive than people who sleep in. A 2016 study from the University of Delaware suggests a link between being an early riser and better cardiovascular health, too. The cliché says it all: “The early bird catches the worm.”
Can you train yourself to transform from a night owl into a lark? Whether you believe early birds really are more productive, or work or school mean you have to start before the sun rises, it’s a question many ask.
The scientific answer is … maybe.
It isn’t impossible, but changing your circadian rhythm isn’t as easy as simply setting the alarm clock for an earlier time.
Researchers at the University of Surrey (and their colleagues) found that humans have a gene, called PER3 or Period 3, which regulates our body and dictates, at least to a certain extent, whether we are morning people or night people. If your mom and dad like to stay up past midnight, then it is unlikely you’ll naturally rise with the sun.
“A person’s sleep-wake cycles, better known as circadian rhythms, are ultimately controlled centrally in the brain. While we do certainly inherit genetic influences, we voluntarily and involuntarily change our gene expression through our life choices and experiences,” says Dr. Chris Mabry of Columbus, Ohio’s Ability Chiropractic. “Research has proven time and time again that our choices and our environment ultimately dictate our physiology.”
So while a gene may make you naturally predisposed to being a morning person (or not), you can make lifestyle changes to switch your internal clock.
Caballero starts playing piano as soon as he gets out of bed in the morning. He used to practice at night, but realized he was too mentally drained to do it well, and his piano teacher recommended the morning sessions. He calls it his “mental full body workout, getting visual, auditory and motor cortices going.” After 10 to 15 minutes playing, he feels mentally ready to start his day—earlier than he used to.
You might not be a piano player, but the example highlights one way in which you could jump start your brain. Caballero says that playing piano has helped him to “be more creative in my day-to-day activities, allowing me to think more outside of the box.”
Here are a few other changes you can make in your life to make your mornings brighter:
See the light. Exposure to light signals to your brain that it’s time to start the day. Help your hypothalamus out (that’s the part of your brain that controls your circadian rhythms) by making it easier: Place your bed next to the window, so you see the daylight early. Take the dog for a walk or go for a run outside to soak up the bright light. Or try a special alarm clock that increases the level of light in the room.
Drink some coffee. For many people it’s not just the caffeine, but the routine of drinking coffee that helps wake them up. Steeping your tea or even stirring lemon into water may give you the same result.
Stick to a schedule. Going to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends, helps set your body and your brain in the desired routine.
Commit to your new lifestyle. Mabry believes that you can’t be half-hearted in your efforts to be happily awake closer to (or before) dawn: “You will never be an early bird if you never want to be.”