A few simple tweaks to the sleeping patterns of night owls could lead to significant improvements in the timing of sleep and waking, improved performance in the mornings, better eating habits, and a decrease in depression and stress.
New research by the University of Birmingham and the University of 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 using non-pharmacological and practical interventions.
Night owls are individuals whose internal body clock dictates later-than-usual sleep and wake times. In a new study participants had an average bedtime of 2:30 a.m. and wake-up time of 10:15 a.m.
The study demonstrated 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, according to researchers.
“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,” said lead researcher Dr. Elise Facer-Childs, from Monash University’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health.
“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,” added study co-author Dr. Andrew Bagshaw, from the University of Birmingham.
“We wanted to see if there were simple things people could do at home to solve this issue,” he continued. “This was successful, on average allowing people to get to sleep and wake up around two hours earlier than they were before. Most interestingly, this was also associated with improvements in mental well-being and perceived sleepiness, meaning that it was a very positive outcome for the participants. 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 the study researchers recruited 22 healthy individuals. For three weeks, participants were asked to:
- Wake up two to three hours before their regular wake up time;
- Maximize outdoor light during the mornings;
- Go to bed two to three hours before their habitual bedtime and limit light exposure in the evening;
- Keep sleep and wake times fixed on both work days and free days;
- Have breakfast as soon as possible after waking up, eat lunch at the same time each day, and refrain from eating dinner after 7 p.m.
The study’s findings highlighted an increase in cognitive and physical 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, researchers said.
“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,” said Professor Debra Skene from the University of Surrey.
The study was published in Sleep Medicine.
Source: The University of Birmingham