There are a lot of factors that contribute to good health: healthy diet, exercise, and adequate sleep are just a few of the more common ones. We are generally told that 7-8 hours of sleep is ideal, but a recent study shows that it’s not just how long but also when you sleep that matters.
The study, which followed 433 268 people ages 38-73 for six and a half years, found that being a morning person had significant health benefits over being a night owl. It divided people into four categories, “definite morning,” “moderate morning,” “moderate evening,” and “definite evening,” and compared their likelihood of getting different diseases as well as their likelihood to die from a disease.
After factoring out different variables, they found that overall, being a night owl increased the likelihood of dying from disease by 10%. On top of that, the likelihood of getting a disease increased with each category from definite morning people to definite evening people. Night owls were almost twice as likely to suffer from a psychological disorder, 30% more likely to have diabetes, 23% more likely to have respiratory disease, and 22% more likely to have a gastrointestinal disease.
While the exact reason for this increase in risk is unclear, one thought is that it has to do with the lifestyle factors that can come along with being a night person. Someone who stays up late might still have to wake up early for work or other obligations, for example, so they may get less sleep than a morning person by default.
"The problem may be that a night owl is trying to live in a morning lark world," says Kristin Knutson, the lead researcher on the study. "They have to get up earlier for work, perhaps, or if they want to socialize with friends and family that might occur earlier than their biological clock would want.”
Late night activities also often (but of course not always) include unhealthier lifestyle choices such as junk food, excessive screen time, drinking, and smoking.
Michael von Shantz of the University of Surrey said in a press release that considerations should be made for night owls: “This is a public health issue that can no longer be ignored. We should discuss allowing evening types to start and finish work later, where practical. And we need more research about how we can help evening types cope with the higher effort of keeping their body clock in synchrony with sun time.”
If you’re more of a roll-out-of-bed around noon person than an up-at-dawn fan, there are steps you can take to readjust your schedule, though it may take some patience.
"It is important for people who are night owls to learn there may be health consequences, but there may be things they can do to help overcome those problems," says Knutson. "There's hope, but it may take some effort."
With a little patience and commitment, the following tips can help you make the transition from night owl to morning person.
Your body will most likely fight a major shift in your sleeping schedule and even trying to go to bed an hour or two earlier than normal may make for a difficult adjustment. Rather than going for a sudden change, slowly adjust your bed time by 20-30 minutes. This will allow you to gradually and effectively change your sleep habits.
If getting yourself out of bed in the morning is a serious challenge, consider setting up an incentive that will make you want to get up. You could buy a bag of fancy coffee you’ve been wanting to try, create a morning play list with your favorite music, find an entertaining early morning podcast, take a morning walk, or anything that makes waking up early seem (at least slightly) worthwhile.
Once you’ve adjusted your sleep schedule, it’s important to stick with your routine in order to maintain it. If you have some late nights mixed in with early nights, you’re much more likely to drift back to your old patterns.
Creating an evening routine helps your mind and body to prepare itself for sleep. You can’t spend all evening rushing around, eating late, and watching TV or scrolling on your phone, and then expect to hop into bed and fall asleep. You need to slowly begin shutting down for the day, and one of the best ways to do this is with an evening routine or relaxing activities (especially those that don’t involve screen time, which can mess with your melatonin levels and trick the body into thinking its day time).
Things like taking a bath or shower, dimming the lights, lighting candles, and reading are all great ways to get you ready for sleep.
We are designed to naturally rise and set (i.e. sleep) with the sun, and the light from the sun plays a major role in regulating the sleep hormones that help us wind down in the evening and wake up in the morning. For a number of reasons (largely, artificial lighting), many of us have sleep hormones that are out of whack. This post has a ton of information on how to regulate your sleep hormones to get a healthier sleep that is in tune with what nature intended.
Some people do seem to thrive on a late to bed, late to rise schedule. As suggested by the study’s researchers, it may not be this schedule that’s the problem but rather, trying to tie this schedule in to a daytime focused lifestyle. If you find that you really do better on a night owl schedule and would like to keep it that way, look for adjustments that you can make to your daily schedule that will support that. Maybe you can talk to your employer about an adjusted work schedule, fit in late evening gym classes, or make dinner rather than breakfast plans with friends.
Other people, such as shift workers, have no choice but to adopt a late-night lifestyle. In these cases, it’s important to adopt healthy lifestyle choices where possible to counteract the potentially negative effects of being up at night. Choosing a healthy diet, spending time in nature, and fitting in exercise are just a few of the more popular examples.
Getting a good night’s sleep is not as easy as most of us would like it to be, and while the research is showing that moving towards an early to bed, early to rise schedule is ideal, it’s also important that the amount and quality of your sleep are sufficient.
We’ve written extensively about the importance of sleep and tips and tricks for getting the most out of your slumber:
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