Maybe it’s just a case of quarantine brain, but I’ve been sluggish all day from waking up until I start to wind down. Randomly, as soon as 10 pm hits, I get a crazy burst of energy. Whereas 10 minutes ago, I was barely functional while watching Netflix, I suddenly feel like I could paint the Sistine Chapel or write a full set of encyclopedias.
Although these random bursts of energy at night are beneficial for my writing and general mood, they wreak havoc on my sleep schedule and they aren’t always as productive as I would like them to be. Last night after a particularly wild one that resulted in me dancing to an air-horn laden remix of Toto’s Africa, I knew this had to end. I had to know why I get weird bursts of energy at night and how I could make them conducive to a normal-person schedule. Fortunately, science had some answers!
The basics of sleep
Our desire to go to sleep and wake up is driven by our circadian rhythms, the 24-hour clock that exists in nearly all species.
Our environment can disrupt these normal patterns and make us more likely to have disrupted sleep patterns. Some of us have managed to adjust these schedules but as humans, we can’t just decide to turn off our internal clocks like blind mexican cavefish.
It’s fairly common for people to experience jetlag or have trouble with sleep patterns when they live at polar extremes, but these aren’t the only things that can disrupt our sleep. And the “disruptors” may be different for all of us.
Some researchers have categorized people into chronotypes. Sleep doctors have come up with many quizzes and nicknames for the different chronotypes, but the main idea is this: we all function best at different times of day.
For example, if you have an “evening” chronotype, even normal work hours can impact how you sleep. If you’re someone who tends to go to bed later on the weekends and requires an alarm clock to wake during the week, your sleep schedule is probably not your friend. A difference of only 1 hour between week and weekend sleep cycles can contribute to increased obesity, chronic conditions, and increased alcohol and tobacco consumption. What’s worse, our attempts to try to catch up on sleep during the weekend can make these worse.
There are multiple explanations for why we differ so much, but large scale studies have told us that we have certain “clock genes” that might change our metabolisms or how we respond to light. Melatonin is our body’s natural “sleep drug”, produced by our bodies in the absence of light. The way our bodies produce and circulate melatonin differs, and possibly changes as we age, which could explain why your grandparents go to bed at 7pm.
Ok, but why the random bursts of energy?
I already had a fairly decent understanding of all this, but it still didn’t give me the explanation I needed for my desire to clean everything and write a novel at 10 pm.
Enter cortisol. It’s what gives us the fight or flight response- it increases so we can deal with stress. It’s also responsible for reducing inflammation, regulating metabolism, and forming memories. Awesome, unless you have too much of it, or its levels rise at the wrong time. And its levels are impacted by our sleep.
In a study comparing sleep-deprived groups and well-rested groups, sleep-deprived groups not only had more cortisol present in the early evening, but the rate at which cortisol levels decreased in the body was almost 6 times higher in the sleep-deprived group.
Essentially, the more we ruin our sleep schedules, the more likely we are to sabotage future sleep. Cortisol could definitely be responsible for this. But it’s not alone.
Remember melatonin, our favorite sleepy boi? Taking oral melatonin before bed has been studied as a treatment for insomnia, so maybe it could work to cure the nighttime lizard brain that keeps us from sleep.
Melatonin may cause sleep, but even better is that taking melatonin may be able to delay our cortisol production from rising. Usually, cortisol should rise through the night and be highest in the morning, but if your sleep schedule is such that your cortisol levels rise earlier and peak before morning, that could be the reason for continued bursts of energy at night.
Unfortunately, other research suggests that melatonin tablets alone won’t solve this issue. Most commercial melatonin tablets contain between 5-10 mg of melatonin. Some research has looked into the bioavailability of melatonin, or how much we actually absorb into the body from a tablet. It’s only about 15%.
Good sleep depends on being able to produce our own melatonin at the right time. This is probably worse among some of us youths because the blue light emitted from electronics keeps us awake by delaying melatonin production. Although blue light blocking glasses seem to provide some benefit, the best option is just not using your technology. Sorry.
So if you’re like me, you’ve probably tried the melatonin, the benadryl, and the guided meditations. The nocturnal schedule and daytime sleepiness isn’t the biggest problem while a lot of us are working from home. But I’d be willing to bet that that the nocturnal schedule isn’t the sole actor in our productivity (or lack thereof) during the day time. As my friend Madeline put it when I told her about my nighttime bursts of energy, “It’s all of my worst college habits times a million”.
This is what I’m going to do to “fix” my energy-filled night brain.
I’ve accepted that I probably have more of an “evening” chronotype, but I’m probably making it worse by sleeping in on weekends and giving up on any attempts I’ve made to form a sleep schedule.
Create a schedule and stick (ish) to it
It doesn’t need to be a strict schedule, it’ll just be setting approximate bed and wake-up times for all 7 days of the week. Keeping it more consistent will (hopefully) keep you from crying into a Snuggie during your 8 am Monday Zoom meeting after a weekend of sleeping from 5 am-2 pm.
Embrace the creativity to an extent, but establish a “cut-off” point
I started writing this last night and made a decent amount of progress, but once 10:30 hit, I made an outline of the rest and forced myself to put the computer away. That way, I could hold myself responsible for anything else I wanted to look up tomorrow.
This is kind of related to the idea of delay discounting, where people settle for less to get something immediately rather than wait it out and get potentially more reward. Faced with the decision of creative productivity vs. sleep, we want to choose creativity, thinking that the advantage of our creative juices at the moment is worth losing out on sleep.
I find myself in this situation frequently, thinking that there is NO WAY I’ll be having these same kinds of thoughts in the morning. I see these weird bursts of energy as my creative peak! Until I wake up, I’m exhausted, and I kind of wish I would have slept so I could work through the now relatively incoherent thoughts of my midnight lizard brain. (Which, by the way, is related to that cortisol-related fight or flight response).
Don’t use tech 30 min. (ideally an hour) before bed
This one is going to be fairly difficult for me. I have recently gotten into typing my late night thoughts so I can make more sense of them in the morning. I’ll really have to weigh whether or not I can deem an idea “important” enough to take out my computer and potentially ruin my sleep over it.
Chances are, my ideas probably aren’t as brilliant as I assume they are, and I can deal with sorting through my journal in the morning. Other than my writing, there’s really no good reason for me to be on tech that late. True crime videos and endless scrolls of Instagram workouts are not worth the impact on my long-term physiological wellness.
I’m definitely not an expert in sleep physiology, so if you happen upon this and have less simplistic explanations for why we get those weird bursts of energy at night, I would love to talk to you. Also, if you have any other good suggestions on how to calm the nighttime lizard brain, please drop me a comment, and I’ll add it to my list of things to try out. Thanks for reading!