“I’m a night owl.”
“I work better after everyone is asleep.”
“I’m not a morning person.”
“I can’t concentrate before noon.”
If you’ve ever said these and struggle with getting up at what the rest of the world considers a “normal” time for most of your life, there’s a pretty good chance you have a disorder called delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS). In fact, studies estimate that one in 750 adults has the syndrome, and while it’s not life threatening and doesn’t cause much distress (apart from the irritation of being dragged out of bed in the mornings) it can be a nuisance and can affect your body in unexpected ways.
Explaining the Disorder
Delayed sleep phase syndrome is almost exactly as it sounds – if you have it, your sleep phases are delayed compared to the common sleep phases experienced by others. Your internal clock – when you sleep, when you wake, when you feel alert, when you feel hungry – quietly schedules most of your day without you even realizing it. This is called your circadian rhythm. Science has found that most people share a common circadian rhythm consisting of 24 hours. For the people who share this similar biological clock, going to bed at 10 p.m. and waking up at 6 a.m. is normal and not too difficult to accomplish.
But people with delayed sleep phase disorder work on a different circadian rhythm. In fact, research suggests their “clock” can run for significantly longer than 24 hours, which means they often fall asleep after midnight and have extreme difficulty waking up in the morning at what others might consider a reasonable time. Because our bodies are so dependent on sleep, DSPS can affect not only the timing of your sleep, but when you feel most alert, your core body temperature, and even hormonal cycles. While this isn’t a life-threatening disorder, it has been compared to constantly living with jet lag.
Don’t Search for a Cure
There is no cure for DSPS, and unfortunately, most of the world is geared toward a 9-to-5 lifestyle, which just doesn’t fit nicely into the internal clock these patients have. It’s typically a lifelong disorder. Another concerning finding is that about 50 percent of patients who live with DSPS also suffer with depression. This is likely linked to the reduced amount of sleep they’re getting.
How to Manage it
Even though there’s no cure for DSPS, it can be managed. Ultimately, the best-case scenario would be to find a career field that allows you to work on your own schedule. People with the disorder, if allowed to sleep and wake on their own schedule, often get the required amount of sleep they need to function happily and properly, but most jobs take issue with an employee strolling into the office at 11 a.m. If you haven’t found a career that allows you to work out your own schedule, the best thing to do is schedule an appointment with a sleep specialist. He or she will help set you on a strict sleep schedule that you should not deviate from. Falling behind a few hours from the recommended schedule one or two days a week can set you back to exactly where you were, and you’ll have to start the process over again.
This process usually involves scaling back your sleep times earlier and earlier until you’re within your desired sleep timeframe. Occasionally, sleep medications may be prescribed, but most physicians try to avoid these because nothing beats natural sleep for your physical and mental wellbeing.
Bright light therapy may also be implemented. This process involves introducing the patient to extremely bright light shortly after waking in the early morning hours and avoiding light hours before they go to sleep in order to trick their circadian rhythm into following a different schedule.
If you think you’re living with delayed sleep phase syndrome, make an appointment with your physician to see what help they can offer you.
Dr. Puneet Patni specializes in Sleep Medicine and Pulmonary Medicine at Kelsey-Seybold. He cares for patients at Clear Lake Clinic, Main Campus, Pasadena Clinic, and the Kelsey-Seybold Sleep Center. His clinical interests include sleep apnea, critical care outcomes, sepsis, medical informatics, and obesity. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and completed a fellowship in Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine.