SLEEP
June 24, 2019

It's Hard Being a Night Owl

People who stay up late are out of step with the 9 to 5 world, and they may pay a price professionally. A few simple changes to one's routine can make a difference.

Society pretty much runs on a 9 to 5 schedule, no matter what the time zone. While this may be good news for “larks,” people with an unusually early sleep-wake cycle, it’s often a problem for “night owls,” who have late sleep-wake cycles. Night owls struggle to keep up with this societal norm, and are prone to mental and physical health issues, so much so that their daytime school and job performance can suffer as a result.

With a few tweaks to their routines, night owls can shift their sleep patterns and improve their performance in the mornings. The changes can also lead to better eating habits and reduce their risk of anxiety and depression, a study by researchers in Australia and the United Kingdom finds.

Night owls' peak performance times shifted from the evening to the afternoon after the intervention.

Day by day, night owls have a harder time functioning because they have to fit into work and school schedules that are out of sync with their usual sleep-wake cycle. The first step is recognizing the burden this places on them. “By acknowledging these differences and providing tools to improve outcomes, we can go a long way in a society that is under constant pressure to achieve optimal productivity and performance,” Elise Facer-Childs, from Monash University in Australia, lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Twenty-two night owls enrolled in a study designed to see if their later cycles could be adjusted to run a little earlier. Participants were randomly assigned to the control group (10 people) or the experimental, intervention group (12 people). For a period of three weeks, those in the intervention group were told to wake up two to three hours earlier than usual every morning, and maximize outdoor light during morning hours. They were also told to go to bed two to three hours earlier than usual, and minimize light exposure at night.

Those in the intervention group were supposed to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day, even on days off and eat breakfast as soon as possible after waking up. They were instructed to eat lunch at the same time each day, and avoid eating dinner after 7 pm. People in the control group were told only to eat lunch at the same time every day.

At the end of three weeks, people in the intervention group had improved their performance on mental tasks in the morning, the time when they were typically most tired. They also functioned better physically, as measured by a test of grip strength. Peak performance times for the intervention group also shifted from the evening to the afternoon. No significant changes in cognitive performance, physical functioning, and peak performance times were seen in the control group.

The intervention group was also more likely to eat breakfast and eat at an earlier hour following the three-week intervention. They ate lunch and dinner at earlier times, as well. Those in the control group reported no changes in meal times.

In addition to being mentally sharper, people in the intervention group said they felt better. They reported they were less depressed and anxious at the end of the three-week study period. No such changes in feelings were reported by those in the control group.

Inadequate sleep and circadian rhythms that are out-of-sync with the usual daytime-nighttime cycle can disrupt bodily processes and put people at risk for heart disease, cancer and diabetes, Debra Skene, a co-author on the study from the University of Surrey in the U.K., said in a statement. “Establishing simple routines could help night owls adjust their body clocks and improve their overall physical and mental health.”

The study is published in Sleep Medicine.
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