The Life of a Person Who Wakes Up Really, Really Early

They walk among us, endowed with a superpower invisible to the naked eye. Before an important early meeting, they never have to forgo a shower and settle for dry shampoo and a baby wipe. They rarely wake with a jolt at 10 in the morning and stare groggily at a phone screen with five missed calls and texts that say, “You on your way? ETA?”

They are people who wake up early—naturally. Not just “early” in the sense of a perky-at-8-a.m. spouse. These are the people whose bodies rouse them at 5:30 a.m. or earlier—some even at hours others are just going to sleep. And new research a decade in the making suggests that the extremely early risers among us might be more common than anyone expected.

Louis J. Ptáček, a professor of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine and an author of the study, got the idea to research these super-larks about 20 years ago, when one of his colleagues introduced him to a 69-year-old woman who was regularly waking up at 1 or 2 a.m. Many people tend to wake up earlier as they age, but even when this woman was in her 30s she was waking up at 4 a.m.

For the study, recently published in the journal Sleep, Ptáček teamed up with Christopher Jones, a neurologist at the University of Utah who was running a sleep clinic. Jones mostly saw patients for sleep apnea or other sleep disturbances. Over the course of 10 years, Jones asked 2,422 patients questions such as “If you had to take a test tomorrow, what would be the best time to take the test?” and “When would be the best time to exercise?”

Those who answered with some of the earliest times were then asked whether they typically woke up by 5:30 a.m. It turned out that eight patients, or one out of every 300, did so. For five of those patients, this so-called advanced sleep phase was genetic, meaning they had multiple relatives who woke up extremely early, too.

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