Advanced Sleepers or “Extreme Early Birds”: Not as Rare as We Once Thought

Does the early bird always get the worm? Or is advanced sleep phase more crippling than helpful?

By Loren Bullock

You’ve probably heard about those people who go to bed super early and wake up before the sun. Though this type of sleep behavior may be what some of us strive for, it is actually a sleep disorder called advanced sleep phase, and people who have advanced sleep phase wake up naturally between 4 and 5 a.m. and feel an overwhelming urge to go to bed between 6 and 9 p.m.

Let’s find out more about these extreme early birds.

Extreme Early Bird Habits

Extreme early birds suffer from a sleep disorder that goes by three names: advanced sleep phase, familial advanced sleep phase, and advanced sleep-wake phase disorder.

  • ASP is a someone who is unable to stay awake long enough for an average bedtime and suffers from morning insomnia.
  • FASP is ASP inherited from your family members.
  • ASWPD is essentially another name for ASP.

People with advanced sleep release their dose of melatonin way earlier than people with regular sleep, meaning their circadian rhythm just operates hours ahead of most. While this means early birds tend to function well in the daytime, they have trouble staying awake past 7 p.m. This makes it dangerous to drive at night, makes it difficult to maintain relationships, makes it nearly impossible to work evening and night shifts, and Dr. Louis Ptacek (the study’s senior author) even says they “may have trouble staying awake for social commitments in the evening.”

So, Dr. Ptacek, and colleagues, set out to discover exactly how many people struggle with ASP (and its variations) and what role circadian clock genes play in the disorder.

Louis Ptacek’s Study

In this new study, Ptacek and his team looked at 2,422 patients from a sleep center and followed them for 9.8 years. They collected data on their sleep schedule preference over this period of time. Out of these patients, 1,748 were there for obstructive sleep apnea symptoms, and each was individually screened for ASP and FASP symptoms.

Results

The results of this study shows that of the OSA group, 12 met the ASP or FASP criteria, and 4 of the 12 declined study participation. Here are the numerical results:

  • 3% of the OSA group also had ASP
  • This totals out to 1 out of every 300 people in the scale of the general population
  • 21% of people with ASP inherited it, making their disorder FASP

Because of the 4 that declined to participate, this number could be even higher. Dr. Ptacek says “We hope the results of this study will not only raise awareness of advanced sleep phase and familial advanced sleep phase but also help identify the circadian clock genes and any medical conditions that they may influence.”

Who is at Risk?

From what we know about the study, it seems that a large amount of patients with ASP got it as a result of the disorder being passed down in the family. Older adults are also at an increased risk of ASP due to the circadian rhythm shifts that happen naturally at this time as we age.

Treatment

ASP is normally treated two different ways: using light therapy or using melatonin supplements.

Light therapy is the practice of exposing a patient to bright light for an hour or two before bed. By using light therapy right before extreme early birds usually hit the hay, people with ASP have their early melatonin levels suppressed to a later time.

You can control your melatonin another way: by taking it orally. You can either take a slow-release dose close to your bedtime, or take one halfway through the time you usually sleep.

With both of these therapies, you slowly push back your bedtime until it is as late as you desire.


The Bottom Line

Advanced sleep phase is a disorder characterized by going to bed extremely early and waking up early as well. These early risers have trouble staying awake past 7 p.m., which negatively affects their lives. About 1-in-300 people will have ASP and a large amount of them will get it hereditarily. To treat this disorder, you can either use light therapy or melatonin to have a more normal sleep schedule.


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