The Health Risks of Being a Night Owl
If you’re a classic night owl—staying up late and struggling to wake in the morning—your health could pay the price. According to a recent study published in Nature Communications, the more of a night owl you are, the higher your risk of developing certain mental health issues. Scientists compared the genetic data of almost 700,000 people and found that those with the fewest “morning bird” genes were most likely to develop conditions including anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.
Early bird vs. night owl
Early risers—so-called “larks”—have biological clocks that are set earlier than night owls’, explains Hans P. A. Van Dongen, PhD, director of the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University Spokane. That means they generally wake up earlier and go to bed earlier.
Doctors aren’t 100% certain what accounts for the link between a risk for mental health conditions and a habit of staying up late, study co-author Jacqueline Lane, PhD, told Live Science in an interview. But she proffered a few theories: The genes of early risers could have protective factors; early birds may benefit from the stimulation of morning light; or there could be societal advantages to feeling “awake” in the middle of the day in a 9-to-5 culture.
“With school and work typically starting early in the morning, morning types have an advantage in that regard,” says Van Dongen. It’s easy for night owls to feel left behind as early risers wake up refreshed, run a couple of miles, and head to work all before they can summon the ability to exit the bed. Plus, needing to shift one’s “natural” timing, or chronotype, to match the rest of society’s can take a toll on long-term cardiometabolic health, according to a study published in Advances in Nutrition.
This most recent study isn’t the first one suggesting that being a night owl might hinder psychological well-being. Late-nighters themselves often report worse moods in the mornings, and they’re more likely to have significant mood changes throughout the day, a study in Depression and Anxiety found.
And people who identify as “definite evening types” are nearly twice as likely to report having some type of psychological illness compared with “definite morning types,” according to a study in Chronobiology International. They also could be more susceptible to neurological, GI, and respiratory disorders and even all-cause mortality, other research finds. And night owls’ off-schedule eating habits? That could wreak havoc on their metabolism.
How to make your internal clock work for you
Are night owls doomed to poor health while morning birds thrive? Not necessarily, says Van Dongen. Here, he offers some advice on how to make your internal clock work for you.
Take control of your work schedule (as best you can)
“To what extent morning-type and evening-type individuals thrive physically and mentally depends a lot on the time demands of their environment,” Van Dongen says. That means if you’re up all night and tied to the constraints of a 9-to-5 job, you might feel it more—but if your work hours are more flexible (as in, you’re self-employed or can set your hours), it’s not so clear that early risers maintain their advantage, he says.
“Owls would likely do as well as larks if they can be on a schedule that does not force them to go to bed and get up earlier than their biological clock tells them to,” says Van Dongen. In the best-case scenario, your work schedule lines up with your wake-sleep cycle.
“It’s long been argued that flexible work hours would be helpful for worker health and wellbeing, and that is especially true for those whose biological clocks do not fit the more common, early schedules of most work and school settings,” he says.
Ban light from your bedroom
Stuck with the 9-to-5 grind and can’t even work remotely every now and then? Come evening, lean toward the morning-bird lifestyle by banning blue-light emitting devices (which can reduce your sleep quality and disrupt your circadian rhythm) from your bedroom. Even falling asleep or prepping yourself for bed a few minutes early could help the alarm feel less painful in the morning.
Turn that glowing alarm clock away from your face to shield yourself even further from unnecessary light pre-bed too, advises the National Sleep Foundation. It’s a small step that could help you feel more alert come a.m.
Create a sleep sanctuary
Declutter your bedroom, turn the temperature down (between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal), or practice some deep breathing exercises—relaxing into sleepy time is a key part of a healthy sleep routine that, in turn, supports a healthy circadian rhythm.
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Wake up, find the sun. Not only is morning sunlight exposure linked to a lower body mass index (BMI), the sun’s rays are also one of the most potent regulators of your body’s internal clock, helping your body adjust more naturally to the day when you’d, well, rather be sleeping. Aim for about 20 minutes of bright sunlight between 8 a.m. and noon, researchers say.
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