A simple tweak to the sleeping patterns of ‘night owls’ – people with extreme late sleeping and waking habits – could lead to significant improvements in sleep/wake timings, improved performance in the mornings, better eating habits and a decrease in depression and stress.
New international research by the Universities of Birmingham and Surrey in the UK, and Monash University in Australia, showed that, over a three-week period, it was possible to shift the circadian rhythm of ‘night owls’ without sleeping pills.
The study showed that participants were able to bring forward their sleep/wake timings by two hours, while having no negative effect on sleep duration. In addition, participants reported a decrease in feelings of depression and stress, as well as in daytime sleepiness.
“Our research findings highlight the ability of a simple non-pharmacological 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,” lead researcher Dr Elise Facer-Childs from Monash University said.
‘Night owls’ are individuals whose internal body clock dictates later-than-usual sleep and wake times – in this study participants had an average bedtime of 2.30am and wake-up time of 10.15am.
Disturbances to the sleep/wake system have been linked to a variety of health issues, including mood swings, increased morbidity and mortality rates, and declines in cognitive and physical 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,” study co-author Dr Andrew Bagshaw from the University of Birmingham said.
Twenty-two healthy individuals participated in the study. For a period of three weeks participants in the experimental group were asked to:
The results highlighted an increase in cognitive (reaction time) and physical (grip strength) performance during the morning when tiredness is often very high in ‘night owls’, as well as a shift in peak performance times from evening to afternoon. It also increased the number of days in which breakfast was consumed and led to better mental well-being, with participants reporting a decrease in feelings of stress and depression.
“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,” Professor Debra Skene from the University of Surrey said.