Research from earlier this year found that night owls — people who naturally keep late hours — experience an effect similar to jet lag on a daily basis.
This occurs, at least in part, because they have to meet the requirements of a world that we created for “morning people,” in which 9 to 5 jobs are standard, and there is the expectation that people should primarily work in the mornings.
However, a team of researchers from the Universities of Birmingham and Surrey in the United Kingdom and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, argues that by making just a few simple lifestyle adjustments, night owls might be able to minimize their health risks.
For their study, the researchers recruited 22 healthy volunteers with night owl habits. They had an average bedtime of 2.30 a.m. and an average wake-up time of 10.15 a.m.
“Our research findings highlight the ability of a simple nonpharmacological intervention to phase advance ‘night owls,’ reduce negative elements of mental health and sleepiness, as well as manipulate peak performance times in the real world,” says lead researcher Elise Facer-Childs, Ph.D.
The team presents the study’s findings in a dedicated paper that appears in the journal Sleep Medicine.
4 changes to boost night owls’ performance
“Having a late sleep pattern puts you at odds with the standard societal days, which can lead to a range of adverse outcomes — from daytime sleepiness to poorer mental well-being,” explains study co-author Andrew Bagshaw, Ph.D.
For this reason, the researchers wanted to find out whether implementing some easy lifestyle changes would allow individuals to adjust their sleep patterns. They also wanted to see whether it could reduce the ill effects that the mismatch between body clock rhythm and the rhythm of modern society can have on health.
To this end, the team asked the 22 participants to make certain lifestyle changes over 3 weeks. These changes included:
- Waking up 2–3 hours earlier than they usually would and trying to get maximum exposure to outdoor light in the morning.
- Going to bed 2–3 hours earlier than they usually would and minimizing exposure to light sources in the evening, before bed.
- Keeping to the same wake-up times and bedtimes every day, including at weekends.
- Eating breakfast first thing after waking up, lunch at a consistent time each day, and dinner no later than 7 p.m.
“We wanted to see if there were simple things people could do at home to solve this issue,” says Bagshaw, adding that the study’s approach “was successful, on average allowing people to get to sleep and wake up around 2 hours earlier than they were before.”
After the 3-week intervention, the volunteers demonstrated improvements in both cognitive performance, with an increase in reaction time, and physical shape, with improved grip strength, in the morning. They also reported reaching “peak” performance capacity in the afternoons rather than in the evenings as they were before the study.
Moreover, participants reported a decrease in feelings of depression and stress, as well as in daytime sleepiness.
“[The intervention] was also associated with improvements in mental well-being and perceived sleepiness, meaning that it was a very positive outcome for the participants,” notes Bagshaw.
However, the researcher continues, “we now need to understand how habitual sleep patterns are related to the brain, how this links with mental well-being, and whether the interventions lead to long-term changes.”
For now, the researchers argue that these easy adjustments can allow people whose natural body clock does not match the regular 9 to 5 work schedule to boost both their performance and their well-being.
“Establishing simple routines could help ‘night owls’ adjust their body clocks and improve their overall physical and mental health. Insufficient levels of sleep and circadian misalignment can disrupt many bodily processes, putting us at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.”
Study co-author Prof. Debra Skene