13 Ways Being a Night Owl Could Hurt Your Health
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Plus, tips from sleep experts for a healthier bedtime routine.
Knowing when you feel overtired isn’t exactly rocket science. You probably feel sluggish, weak, unproductive. Your pesky undereye circles may be more pronounced and your cravings stronger than ever.
In a 2013 study in the journal Chronobiology International, researchers found that “evening types” were 30% more ly than “morning types” to have high blood pressure, even after they controlled for participants’ total amount of sleep and sleep quality.
Andrew Varga, MD, assistant professor of medicine, pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at Icahn School of Medicine and Mount Sinai Health System, says that lifestyle patterns unhealthy eating or lack of exercise may contribute to night owls’ higher lihood of hypertension. Stress—both physiological and psychological—may play a big role, as well.
RELATED: 20 Ways to Lower Your Blood Pressure Naturally
Self-described night owls spend more time sitting than people who consider themselves early birds, according to a 2014 research abstract in the journal Sleep; they also report having more difficulty finding time to exercise and maintaining a regular exercise schedule.
The people in the study weren’t lazy; they were highly active adults averaging 83 minutes of vigorous activity a week. Still, waking up late or being an evening person made exercise seem much more difficult. Night owls in less active populations would ly find it even harder to get moving, the authors hypothesized.
Most fitness experts agree that the best time of day to exercise is different for everyone, and that optimal timing will depend on a person’s schedule and preferences.
But getting up early and working out first thing does have its advantages: A morning workout can give you energy to power you through the rest of the day, and your routine won’t get derailed if something unexpected comes up later on.
RELATED: How to Become the Type of Person Who Works Out in the Morning
“When people go to bed late, they’re up living their lives—and one of the things they’re often doing is eating,” says Dr. Varga. “If your bedtime is 3 in the morning, you’re probably eating around 11 p.m. or midnight, and that’s been known to create problems with the way your body handles and metabolizes food.”
Some experts believe that eating after dark disrupts the body’s natural overnight fasting period, which can interfere with its ability to burn fat.
Night owls also happen to consume more calories per day than early birds, according to a 2011 study in the journal Obesity–248 more, on average–perhaps because willpower is lower when you’re tired and we tend to crave unhealthier foods late at night.
Type 2 diabetes is a serious condition, but the good news is that lifestyle changes can help prevent or delay a diagnosis. Watch this video to see five changes that you can make to help avoid type 2 diabetes.
For those who do go on to develop diabetes, being a night owl can make the condition more difficult to manage. A 2013 study in Diabetes Care found that, for people with type 2 diabetes, having a later bedtime is associated with poorer glycemic control—even after researchers controlled for total sleep duration.
“We know that the amount of sleep you get is important, but this research is also suggesting that when you’re sleeping matters, too,” says Knutson, who co-authored the study. Other research in people with diabetes has also shown a link between evening chronotypes and unhealthy cholesterol levels.
RELATED: 15 Ways High Blood Sugar Affects Your Body
Speaking of the amount of sleep you get: Night owls also tend to get less overall than those who are early-to-bed, early-to-rise. “If you can’t fall asleep until 2 or 3 in the morning and you have to be at work at 9, you’re not going to be able to get as much good-quality sleep as you really should,” says Dr. Varga.
Night owls with weekday jobs tend to make up for some of that lost sleep on the weekends, when they can sleep in. But research suggests that this type of “sleep debt” isn’t that easy to catch up on—and that shifting your sleep schedule on the weekends may come with health risks of its own.
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Staying up late and sleeping in every morning is also associated with a greater tendency for risk-taking, according to a 2014 study in Evolutionary Psychology. While men in the study took more financial risks than women overall, women who were self-described night owls were more daring than those who were early birds.
Female night owls also had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which the study authors suspect is a driving mechanism behind high-stakes behavior. And while taking risks isn’t always a bad thing, it can sometimes lead to dangerous or unhealthy situations, gambling, substance abuse, or unprotected sex.
That same 2014 study also found that night owls, both male and female, were more ly to be single or in short-term romantic relationships. Early birds, meanwhile, were more ly to be married or with long-term partners. Male night owls also reported having had twice as many sexual partners compared to male early birds.
There’s nothing wrong with being single, of course—but research does suggest that, when it comes to health benefits, happily married people often have a leg up. Partners in long-term relationships may motivate each other to stay healthy and visit the doctor, experts say, and the companionship they provide each other is also valuable for mental and physical health.
RELATED: Why Love Is Good for Your Health
It makes sense that night owls tend to be more tired and less alert in the morning, compared to how they feel during their prime evening hours. But a small 2014 study in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention suggests there may be real risks to that a.m. sleepiness.
The research, which tested 29 graduate students on driving simulators, found that evening types were less attentive and more prone to errors at 8 in the morning than they were at 8 p.m. Morning types, on the other hand, were more consistent and drove relatively well during both times of the day.
The authors say their findings suggest that employers should tailor individual work schedules around employees’ chronotypes to cut back on people having to drive or perform work-related tasks during “non-optimal” times.
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It’s not uncommon for teenagers to have trouble falling asleep before 11 p.m. School responsibilities and social distractions are two big reasons, but hormonal changes around puberty can also have a lot to do with teens’ shifted sleep schedule.
Unfortunately, teens aren’t immune to the hazards of staying up late. A 2013 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that teens who went to bed later than 11:30 during the school year had lower grade-point averages and were more vulnerable to emotional problems than those who went to bed earlier.
The study underscores the importance of parents enforcing bedtimes and discouraging the use of electronic devices at night, say the authors.
RELATED: Exactly What 7 Sleep Experts Do When They Can’t Fall Asleep
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In a 2015 study published in Depression and Anxiety, people with a late chronotype were more ly to have depression and anxiety disorders, compared to people with an early chronotype.
Late sleepers were also more ly to report significant mood variation throughout the day, with worse mood occurring in the morning.
Other research suggests that the link between chronotype and depression may be especially prevalent in people with diabetes.
That’s not the first time being a night owl had been linked to negative mood and personality traits. In 2008, a study in Personality and Individual Differences found that “morningness” correlated with agreeableness and conscientiousness, while “eveningness” was related to neuroticism in women and adolescents.
Recently, researchers have suggested that night owls may have a harder time regulating their emotions.
In a 2017 study in the Journal of Biological Rhythms, scientists found that night owls are more ly to suppress their feelings and less ly to practice cognitive reappraisal (the ability to change the way one thinks about something—to “look on the bright side,” for example) than morning people.
A night-owl lifestyle often goes hand-in-hand with other unhealthy behaviors: People who consistently stay up late tend to use more alcohol and tobacco products than those who go to bed early, for example.
Of course, that’s not true for all night owls, and there’s also no evidence that staying up late actually leads to these behaviors. “It’s not clear whether staying up late is a cause or a result of these other lifestyle issues,” says Knutson. “In fact, if you’re staying up late because you can’t fall asleep, these unhealthy behaviors might be a big part of the problem.”
Even with all of this research, it hasn’t been clear whether the health risks associated with being a night owl are substantial enough to make a measurable difference in people’s lives. But Knutson’s most recent study took a big step toward answering that question.
In a paper published in April in Chronobiology International, Knutson and her colleagues followed about half a million people, ages 30 to 73, for about six and a half years. Over that time, they found that those who identified themselves as “definite evening types” at the start of the study had a 10% higher risk of dying than those who were “definite morning types.”
“People who were definite night owls were also more ly to have pretty much every health problem we looked at,” says Knutson. (Those problems included diabetes, neurological problems, and respiratory disorders, to name a few.) “And now we have evidence to show that staying up late also seems to be connected to early death or mortality, as well.”
RELATED: 34 Sleep Hacks for Your Most Restful Night Ever
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There are some upsides to being a naturally late sleeper. Night owls tend to have bigger social networks, and some research has found them to be more productive and creative than morning birds. One 2011 study even suggests that night owls have higher levels of cognitive ability, even though they tend to perform worse on academic testing.
Dr. Varga also points out that plenty of night owls lead healthy lives, and that more research is needed to determine the real-life consequences of staying up late.
“The true data on this is not very strong, and a lot of it is extrapolated from people in extreme situations, shift workers,” he says. “It’s still not clear how serious the risks are for people whose patterns may be just a few hours off, so I think some caution is warranted when you’re interpreting these studies.”
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Your chronotype may be ingrained in your DNA, says Knutson, but that doesn’t mean you can’t change it. “About 50% is genetic, but that leaves another 50% where there’s opportunity for shifting your clock,” she says. “But it does require vigilance and consistency with your schedule, which can be a challenge to maintain.”
Night owls can gradually acclimate themselves to an earlier bedtime by turning in a few minutes earlier every night, she says. (Don’t rush it too quickly, or you’ll lie awake for hours.) It’s also important to avoid bright light at night, and to wake up at the same time every day.
Exposing yourself to bright light first thing in the morning can also help reprogram the brain to wake up—and subsequently fall asleep—earlier, says Dr. Varga. You can also ask your doctor about taking melatonin, a synthetic version of the brain’s sleep-inducing hormone, key in regulating your internal clock.
But will shifting the body’s natural chronotype actually protect against some of the health risks of being a night owl? “We don’t know the answer to that yet, and that’s where the research needs to go next,” says Knutson.
“For now, I think it’s most important for night owls to recognize that there are health problems associated with their lifestyle,” she adds. “They seem to be more vulnerable to the consequences of a less healthy lifestyle, so they need to be even more vigilant about making smart choices.”
Being a Night Owl Really Can Hurt Your Mental Health
Ben Franklin may have had it partly right with his belief that “early to rise” makes one “healthy, wealthy and wise.” Natural early risers may experience greater overall well-being and better mental health compared with night owls, a new study suggests.
But what Franklin ly didn't know is that your chronotype, or tendency to sleep and rise at a particular time, is heavily dependent on your genes — and there might not be much you can do to change it.
In the new study, published today (Jan.
29) in the journal Nature Communications, researchers identified 351 regions in the human genome associated with being an early bird, only 24 of which were known previously.
Those people in the study with the most gene variants associated with early rising tended to go to sleep upward of a half hour sooner than others with fewer of these variants. [5 Surprising Sleep Discoveries]
What's more, the study found that these genomic regions were linked to the body's circadian clock and to the retina, supporting the theory that the brain's ability to detect light through the retina sets the body's clock to a 24-hour cycle of sleep and wakefulness.
“Part of the reason why some people are up with the lark while others are night owls is because of differences in both the way our brains react to external light signals and the normal functioning of our internal clocks,” lead study author Samuel Jones, a research fellow studying the genetics of sleeping patterns at the University of Exeter Medical School in the U.K, said in a press statement.
The study tapped into genomic data from nearly 700,000 participants in a U.K.-based nonprofit health project called the U.K. Biobank and the U.S.-based private genome analysis company 23andMe. The 23andMe participants were asked via a health survey whether they were a “morning person” or a “night owl,” or somewhere in between.
As such an answer could be subjective, the researchers validated their findings with information from wristband activity trackers worn by more than 85,000 individuals in the UK Biobank project, which revealed with no bias when they went to sleep and woke up.
The researchers found differences in sleep timing but not sleep quality. They also found no increased risk of obesity and diabetes among night owls, contrary to some earlier studies. But they uncovered an apparent causal link between being a night owl and being more prone to depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.
That is, through their statistical analysis, the researchers showed that the more of a night owl someone is, as defined by their genetics, the greater their risk of schizophrenia and the lower their wellbeing. This was not dependent on factors such as poor sleep quality or lack of sleep, they found.
The reason for this link between sleep timing and poor mental health remains unknown but perhaps is due to a combination of factors, said co-lead study author Jacqueline Lane, an instructor and researcher at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Genomic Medicine.
These factors could include unknown protections offered by the genes in early risers, or the physical stimulation of morning light that early risers receive, or societal advantages of feeling awake in the morning and midday in a culture dominated by a 9-to-5 work cycle, Lane said.
[The Science of Jet Lag: 5 Surprising Findings]
“Our current study really highlights the need for further study of how chronotype is causally linked to mental health and, until these studies are done, we can only speculate on the mechanism,” Lane told Live Science.
If you are a bona fide night owl who needs to function in an early-riser world, you aren't entirely luck, said Nancy Rothstein, a sleep consultant known as The Sleep Ambassador with a focus on business productivity.
Rothstein said you can better prepare for sleep by not consuming caffeine in the afternoon and by tuning technology at least an hour before going to bed, so that sweet sleep can arrive soon after you hit the pillow.
“Asking yourself to get to bed a few hours earlier is not always realistic,” Rothstein told Live Science. “Your body clock needs to adapt to the change in timing.
Fill the hour [before bed] with a shower, reading with a dim light, having a conversation, or doing some gentle stretching,” Rothstein said.
“Practice a simple mindfulness technique that gets you your head and into your breathing and body awareness.”
Follow Christopher Wanjek @wanjek for daily tweets on health and science with a humorous edge. Wanjek is the author of “Food at Work” and “Bad Medicine.” His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on Live Science
No, Night Owls Aren’t Doomed to Die Early
Continue reading the main story
Last spring, a study set the internet ablaze with sensational headlines promising an early death for those with nontraditional sleep schedules. It wasn’t the conclusion of the study, or its researchers. But in the bombastic world of science reporting, it didn’t really matter.
Originally published in the journal Chronobiology International, the study looked at the chronotypes — a means of classifying one’s predisposition for sleeping at certain hours — of more than 430,000 people over a six-and-a-half-year period. Scouring data from the National Health Service in England and the NHS Central Register in Scotland, researchers sought to find out what, if any, negative health impacts awaited those with a night-owl schedule.
After sorting nearly half a million people into four groups — definite larks (larks are early birds, those most ly to rise with the sun), definite owls (those more ly to retire to bed with the sun than to wake with it), moderate larks and moderate owls — researchers reported some troubling findings.
More than 10,000 participants died during the study period. Of those deaths, the bulk seemed to be the result of natural causes.
The study didn’t necessarily seek to link death with sleep deprivation, but rather to “comorbidity” — the occurrence in one person of two or more conditions, such as psychological or neurological disorders, diabetes and the .
With each incremental shift toward a night-owl schedule, comorbidities became more common, increasing the risk of an early death.
But while saying that night owls are going to die early makes for an eye-catching headline, the real story isn’t quite that simple.
It’s evident that owls’ nontraditional schedules put them at risk of significant health problems. Nearly every study on this chronotype has returned troubling findings.
But Kristen Knutson, the lead author of the Chronobiology International study, warned against drawing conclusions simple correlation. Dr.
Knutson, an associate professor at Northwestern University who studies neurology and sleep medicine, told The Los Angeles Times that issues arise for night owls who try to live in a morning lark world, staying up late while adding to their sleep debt each morning.
Dr. Knutson’s study noted a number of other behaviors that could contribute to increased health risks, mostly relating to diet and exercise.
While 24-hour gyms exist, opportunities to take part in classes or athletics are practically unheard-of late at night and overnight.
Food options for those who eat while others are typically sleeping are often limited to fast food and greasy-spoon fare.
These factors suggest there is more to consider than just sleep.
None of the experts we spoke with suggested that people with owl schedules who get restful sleep each night, eat a healthy diet, exercise, form meaningful social connections and get some sunlight each day were at significant risk of an overall decline in their general health, or an early death, based solely on their sleep schedule.
Dr. Knutson acknowledged as much in the study’s conclusion.
In the 1735 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” People at the time agreed, if mostly necessity. Electricity was more than a century away and the jobs of the era were primarily in farming, ranching and manufacturing — all of which typically took place outdoors.
Owls of the period were seen as lazy and unmotivated, the types who frequented bars, brothels and jail cells, often sleeping late into the day. At the time, societal views of owls revolved mostly around the notion that they were to be avoided at all costs, Stephen Innes wrote in his book “Creating the Commonwealth: The Economic Culture of Puritan New England.”
Two centuries passed and not much changed. A 1942 Gallup poll reported that only 3 percent of Americans slept fewer than five hours a night, with most households averaging 7.9 hours.
Owls represented a statistical anomaly; they were outliers who weren’t, and perhaps still aren’t, well understood. Franklin’s adage had become so ingrained that even the advent of electricity couldn’t keep Americans’ heads off their pillows each night. But that was about to change.
By 1954, more than half of American households owned at least one television set. By the early ’90s, we’d reached the same milestone for the personal computer. And just a few years later, more than half the country was connected to the internet.
In 2013, Gallup revisited the poll. This time, those sleeping fewer than five hours a night had ballooned to 14 percent. On average, Americans were sleeping less than ever, just 6.8 hours a night.
Today, larks have a distinct advantage because they run on society’s schedule. Owls, by contrast, abide only the laws of their own bodies. Still, owls do have a few advantages. Studies have found them to be smarter, more creative and more consistent in their work than larks.
One such study, in 2009, monitored larks and owls over two nights in a sleep lab.
Researchers at the University of Liège in Belgium let the participants choose their own sleep and wake times, and required them to take a test when they first woke up, and a second one 10 hours later.
On the first test, both groups performed roughly the same. But on the second, owls significantly outperformed larks, suggesting they were better equipped to maintain a baseline level of mental performance throughout the day.
Another study of more than 20,000 adolescents and teenagers found that those who reported a later sleep schedule were more intelligent and creative, on average, than those who went to bed early.
The findings applied across a variety of demographic variables, including ethnicity, education and religion.
However, while the study was broad, it relied on self-reporting as opposed to objective observation.
Katherine Sharkey, an associate professor of medicine at Brown University, believes that going against the body’s natural tendencies may be the real culprit behind the health issues some owls experience.
“An owl’s internal body clock prevents him or her from falling asleep early enough to get enough sleep before they must wake to meet their obligations,” she said in an email. “I would speculate that if night owls were allowed to follow their preferred schedules, there would be fewer risks associated with being an owl.”
Daniel Gartenberg, a sleep coach who once gave a TED Talk on the benefits of deep sleep, agreed. “In my opinion, the problem isn’t when you sleep, but the natural misalignment in the sleep schedule of those who work a 9-to-5 job,” he said.
For owls, this is a bit of a problem. While their bodies might not be ready for sleep until the wee hours, society remains steadfast in its belief that earlier is better. “It’s these societal pressures that contribute to a growing number of sleep-deprived individuals,” Dr. Gartenberg said.
In Seattle, one school district started class an hour later each day for a test group of students at two high schools to see if a later start time would be a solution for sleep deprivation among children. Those who benefited from the extra hour slept an additional 34 minutes, on average.
And while an extra half-hour may seem inconsequential, the additional rest led to a 4.5 percent increase in their median final classroom grades. This, in most classrooms, constitutes half a letter grade: the difference between an A and a B or a passing grade and a failing one, in some cases.
The results were mirrored in a 2017 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It stated that only a quarter of high school-age children were sleeping the recommended eight hours each night, and that students could benefit from a few additional hours of shut-eye each night.
It’s not just students. A 2013 survey of more than 2,000 working adults suggested that the autonomy to pick their own schedule increased employee output.
The survey, conducted by the research division of Gensler, an architecture and design firm, noted increased job satisfaction, higher productivity and a more favorable view of employers among workers who were allowed to pick when and where they worked each day.
If you’re a night owl, Dr. Sharkey believes you should try to shift to an earlier schedule only if it helps you get more sleep.
For some people, she notes, this adaptation is unreasonable “because they struggle to adapt to societal demands and experience negative consequences and feel unwell.”
While there are dozens of tricks to make a night owl more of a lark — avoiding screens at night, limiting caffeine intake, sleeping in a cooler space or cutting calories after a certain hour — few are ly to make much of a difference over the long term.
In a biological sense, you’re just fighting against yourself. The ideal solution, according to our experts, is to find ways to embrace your natural rhythm, even if it means finding a more flexible job or taking night courses instead of morning ones.
Bryan Clark is a journalist from San Diego who lives at the intersection of technology and culture. You can follow him on here: @bryanclark
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