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What's Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder?
Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome is a sleep disorder in which the person's internal clock (called your circadian rhythm) is delayed from the typical daylight/nighttime cycle. Think of it as a kind of permanent jet lag. A person with DSPS gets tired much later than most people, usually at least a couple of hours past the local average bedtime. This isn't strictly a disorder - it's a neurotype, or just a way some people's brains are wired, to which up to 15% of the population belongs. But when it starts to interfere with your daily life, job, school activities, etc., it's called Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder.

Is Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder the same as insomnia?
No, they're two different sleep conditions. Insomnia is consistent difficulty falling asleep and also staying asleep; DSPS folks with no other underlying or comorbid sleep disorders will have no trouble staying or falling asleep - they just do so much later than everyone else around them. 

What are the symptoms of DSPS?

  • An inability to fall asleep when you want to/at a normal bed time/ before midnight. 
  • An inability to wake up early, despite setting alarms
  • Trying many things that are supposed to help insomniacs, but don't help you "fix" your inability to get to bed early (including medication)
  • Problems falling asleep or getting up early since adolescence or even earlier than that
  • Once you fall asleep, if left to sleep uninterrupted, you can sleep a normal amount, just not at normal hours.
  • You may come from a family of "night owls" - there's a strong genetic component to DSPS
  • You may have a history of depression - no one knows the exact relationship between the two, but many people with DSPS have depression
  • Generally, you don't have any other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy or insomnia. Your main problem is that you can't get to bed on time and can't wake up early to save your life.

Is DSPS Curable?
So far the science says it's really, really tough at best. Some people have had success with chronotherapy - a technique in which you go to sleep later and later in the day for a few weeks until you've trained yourself to go to bed at "normal" hours. However, this is very risky when not under the care of a sleep specialist, as it can lead to non-24 sleep-wake rhythm disorder, in which the person's circadian clock no longer follows a 24-hour cycle. Some people have had some success with light therapy, melatonin and strict sleep hygiene in pushing their bedtime back an hour or two for extended periods of time. But anecdotally, it's my experience that most of us, when left to our own devices, go right back to our natural innate bedtimes. This is because DSPS isn't really a disease: it's just a biologically normal (if uncommon) variation in the way human brains are wired. You can't fix something that isn't inherently broken. 

Is DSPS hereditary?
Yes. If you have one or both parents that has DSPS, you're 3 times more likely to have it than you otherwise would be. Likewise, if you have DSPS, your child is 3x more likely to have it, as well. Both my parents have mild to moderate DSPS, for example.

Are men more likely to get it than women?
Nope, we're about 50/50 on that one!

Is a person with DSPS lazy? Can't they just make themselves go to sleep like a normal person?
What a great idea - I'll just try not having DSPS! Why didn't I think of that before? 🙂 No, a person with DSPS is NOT lazy or weak-willed or anything like that. On the contrary: most of us, before stumbling on this diagnosis, have gone to great lengths our whole lives trying to be "morning people" and get our sleep patterns into sync with the rest of the world. Some people literally make themselves sick trying to do so, depriving themselves of sleep day after day. Ask yourself: could you make yourself go to bed at 7PM every night? At 5PM? Could you get up at 3AM for work and school for years on end? If you're not naturally a very early morning person, it would probably be next to impossible to keep that up your entire life. That's what life is like for DSPS folks every day.

When did you realize you had DSPS?
I've known I was a "night owl" since I was a very young child. My mother's nickname for me when I was little was "Cocuyo" which means "little firefly" in Spanish, because when she'd go into my room to check on me late at night - remember, she's a night owl, too - she could see my eyes shining in the moonlight like two little fireflies 🙂 I would stay up late on weekends and vacations even in elementary school, reading or watching whatever was on TV. This persisted into adolescence (that first period class was killer all four years) and later college (where I got a night job and didn't take any class before noon) and adulthood. I didn't learn about DSPS until a few years ago, but it's blatantly obvious that I have it.

Do you need a doctor to diagnose you?
You should go see a sleep specialist and be checked out by your general practitioner if you suspect you have DSPS. Go to one that has heard of it and won't just give you a prescription for sleep medication (it probably won't help you anyway). This is to rule out any other illness that may be happening and causing DSPS-like symptoms. Recently it's been discovered that a genetic mutation in the "inner clock" gene is associated with a certain type of DSPS, meaning that there may soon be genetic testing to confirm it. But, no, you don't really need to see a doctor to know that your symptoms fit.

Is it possible to have a mild case of DSPS?
Yes, of course! It's possible that you can't get to sleep before, say, 1 in the morning. That's a pretty mild case - it probably doesn't interfere with a 9 to 5 job too much, for example. Everyone has a "window" of time in which they get tired; a mild case of DSPS may just be a couple of hours past the normal bedtime. There are the moderate folks who probably get tired around 2-3AMish, moderate to severe folks like me who get tired even later, and people like one of my BFFs who don't get tired until past sunrise. DSPS is definitely a spectrum.   

What's your "natural bedtime?"
I'm personally happiest going to sleep between 4 and 5AM and getting up at around noon. My idea of "going to bed early" is going to sleep around 2AM. I work from home, so I'm able to get a decent amount of sleep most weekdays, but I still spend the weekends catching up. I've come to accept that I will never be a morning person and am just committed to being the healthiest and happiest I can be within that.