May 21, 2024


“Why don’t you go to sleep when normal people do?” This is a question asked of me on countless occasions. The last time was in a radio interview and I was about to give my usual self-deprecating comments about the joys of not being normal, when I took a breath and replied, “Because I don’t want to.” It really is that simple. Going to bed at 5pm and getting up just after midnight suits me. I enjoy the peace and quiet. My productivity levels soar. It’s just a shame other people find it so difficult to accept. I’m not entirely sure why. I do exactly what everyone else does, I just do it about seven hours earlier. Around the time most of the country is pouring milk on their Weetabix, I’m chopping garlic and frying mushrooms for my lunch. As you’re settling down with a glass of wine and a film, I’ve long since gone to bed. A week of keeping to the same pattern and it became my new routine.

The day always begins with a 1am breakfast before a long walk with my dog, then I start my working day. Working from home makes it all too easy to creep into the world of permanent loungewear, so I try to make the effort and dress as if I were going out to an office. It can feel strange, switching on my computer and settling down to write in the dark, but it doesn’t seem long before the rest of the world wakes up. My office looks out over the town and I see lights appear as the new day begins. I break for lunch around 8am, then go back to my desk. One rule is no napping! I still get an afternoon dip, like everyone else, but it usually happens mid-morning and a quick snack does the trick. If I give in, my sleeping pattern becomes even more erratic. Another thing I have to be strict with is reading emails after my day is over. When everyone else is at their desk chatting away, it’s tempting to join in so, around 2pm, I shut down all the tech, read for a couple of hours, then go to bed.

Of course, this upside-down life is fine when you’re operating as a one-person army, but when I have social commitments or book events, I need to re-integrate into a “normal” timetable. I’ve found the only way to do that successfully, is to treat it like jet lag. Have a good sleep the night before, power through, and eat plenty of carbs the next day. Thankfully, a lot of my friends are abroad, which it makes it easy to organise Zoom calls.

I’ve always had an unusual relationship with sleep. When I was little, I adopted a childlike logic that equated staying awake with being a grownup, but as I grew older I began to enjoy getting up early. There was no typical teenage habit of lying under the duvet until lunchtime and I liked to be ready for the day as early as possible, perhaps influenced by my father who would always sit quietly alongside each dawn as it arrived.

It was when I started training as a doctor that my atypical sleeping habits became embedded. A daily five-hour round trip to Leicester medical school meant I had to wake even earlier than the crack of dawn and as the course became more and more demanding and the clinical situations I witnessed increasingly distressing, that couple of hours of solitude I had each morning became integral to good mental health.

This habit continued long after I left the wards behind, but I often still struggled with getting to sleep. I would have long periods of insomnia, or I found I fall asleep, only to wake a couple of hours later still exhausted but unable to doze off again. My body was tired, but my mind usually failed to cooperate, and sleeplessness followed me around for most of my adult life. That is until about 12 months ago, when a particularly nasty virus (no, not that one) saw me heading to bed at teatime. I woke eight hours later completely refreshed. A week of keeping to the same pattern and it became my new routine. Now I have boundless energy. Twice the work gets done. I have no problems getting to sleep (or leaving it behind) and, more importantly, my mind feels settled. Aside from a scattering of international friends, my social-media timelines move at a snail’s pace and without incoming phone calls and emails, I can get on with my writing without interruption. The silence is uplifting and the solitude has become a comfort.

Walking my dog in the early hours is also a joy. The landscape is so different at night and, without any disturbance, we wander a silent world that feels like it belongs only to us. Initially I used to set an alarm to make sure I was up in time, but now my body wakes naturally. The answer to my sleep dilemmas had been staring me in the face all along. It just took me a few years to realise I’m the kind of person who needs to go to bed at the same time as a small toddler.

In recent years sleep has become quite the hot topic. Depending on the definition you use, insomnia affects up to 40% of the population and even if we do manage to fall asleep, immediately upon waking our watches inform us how well we’ve done, with the quality of our sleep converted into a handy percentage (no pressure there, then). Apps rush to assist us with recordings of falling rain and distant whales. Bedside lights mimic sunrise and sunset. Behind the giant doors of Peloton and Headspace, endless hours of sleep meditation await our selection. It’s no wonder the promise of good sleep is such a big earner.

Insomnia is a crippling condition and continued sleep deprivation not only affects our mental health, but our physical health, too, because it’s when we’re resting that our bodies and our minds do all their housekeeping. Muscle repair, toxin removal, energy restoration quietly get to work in the background once we’ve dozed off. The body’s natural circadian rhythm, triggered by darkness and light, orchestrates the release of hormones, most notably melatonin (the “sleep hormone”) that, among other things, regulates the body’s insulin levels. Even more significantly, while we sleep our minds reset and the brain’s neurons reorganise themselves and flush out the toxic by-products that accumulate during waking hours. It has even been suggested that sleep helps us to convert short-term memories into long-term ones, our synapses declutter and sweep away anything we no longer need, making room for new information.

If all this occurs during sleep, and the hormones involved in the process rely on darkness and light, could an upside-down sleeping pattern like mine, where I’ve trained my body to work permanent “night shifts”, have any detrimental effect on my physical health? There are studies which suggest it might. In 2019, 27 scientists from 16 different countries met at the International Agency for Research in Cancer in Lyon, France, to evaluate whether night shift sleeping patterns can give rise to a higher risk of developing cancer.

After examining the limited evidence, which mainly centres on breast, prostate and colorectal tumours, and analysing the results of animal studies, they graded night shift work as 2A: “probably carcinogenic to humans”. This was mainly based on disruption to the 24-hour “natural” body clock, exposure to artificial light and its suppression of melatonin production. If this really is the case, it’s a worrying conclusion. More than 3m people in the UK are night workers, an increase of 5% in the past 10 years, in addition to the many thousands of insomniacs who, rather than choose this particular lifestyle, find that it has chosen them. The Great British Sleep Survey estimated that one in three of us suffer from sleep issues at any one time and an astonishing 10% describe it as a chronic problem. Then there are people like me, who decide to stay awake in the night.

Will these findings change my sleeping routine? No. They will not. After walking miles of hospital corridors, especially when I specialised in psychiatry, I know one of the most common risk factors in so many diseases is stress. Anxiety, low mood and tension have a huge impact on physical health, not only with a direct effect on how our bodies function, but also through the coping mechanisms we employ to try to alleviate our suffering.

My coping mechanism was a change of sleeping habits and the therapeutic benefits far outweigh potential drawbacks. Rather than fight insomnia and feel helpless, I embraced it, and while I am in the privileged position that my choice of waking hours doesn’t affect anyone else (my dog is ready for a walk any hour of the day or night) as more of us now work from home, little tweaks at the beginning and end of the day can make a huge difference.

It’s always a risk that you’ll be asked why you don’t go to bed when other people do, but fashions change. In medieval times, for example, sleep was biphasic. Everyone had “first” and “second” sleeps, with a little break in between to do housework and chat to their friends (a period known as “the watch”). This habit died out when artificial light became commonplace, but it still exists in more remote parts of the world and continues to be routine within the animal kingdom. Back in the 17th century, the idea of sleeping for eight hours straight would have been mighty strange indeed.

The main message with insomnia is to try a different routine and listen to your body rather than the clock. There are drawbacks to being awake all night, but they are few and far between. Walking my dog in the depths of winter I need a head torch to light my way and it can get a little dicey underfoot, but as we stomp through the fields, I realise my dad was right. He was always a firm believer in ploughing your own furrow and, besides, – I strongly suspect the antidote to most of life’s problems lies in a beautiful sunrise.

Joanna Cannon is the author of A Tidy Ending, out in paperback now (£8.99, HarperCollins). Buy a copy for £8.36 at guardianbookshop.com



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