The Risks of Being a Night Owl in an Early Bird World

May 03, 2018

We often hear about how important it is to get 7 to 8 uninterrupted hours of sleep, but it turns out when you go to bed may have an impact on your health.

A study released in April in the journal Chronobiology International said ‘definite evening types’, or night owls, have a 10 percent increased likelihood of dying compared to those who self-identified as ‘definite morning types.’ Researchers studied nearly half a million people in the United Kingdom over the period of 6 ½ years and found that this increase was true for people of all ages in the study, and for both men and women.

A Natural Rhythm
Each one of us has an internal biological clock that follows the 24-hour cycle of sun-up and sun-down. Some people have a longer cycle of wakefulness, and they are usually the people prone to be night owls. Others have shorter cycles of wakefulness, and they are more likely to be early birds. In a society that favors early birds, night owls can suffer.

Risks of Being a Night Owl
According to Kristen Knutson, the lead author of the study, just like people with obstructive sleep apnea, night owls are more prone to having a host of serious medical conditions. The study showed night owls experience greater rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory disease, gastrointestinal problems, sleep disorders and psychological distress. 

While the exact correlation between late bed times and these conditions is not clear, it could be because staying up late in a world that favors an earlier bed time and wake time simply throws off our whole biology. It also could be because night owls have a greater tendency to drink alcohol and snack at night, which can lead to increased calorie consumption and weight gain. Excess weight can cause sleep disturbances, like obstructive sleep apnea. Not to mention, people who stay up late are often up by themselves, which can cause loneliness and feelings of depression.

John Keeley, clinical education specialist for the Shore Sleep Center in Somers Point, says that night owl habits often develop in the teenage and college years.

“Young children typically go to bed and wake up early, but when they hit puberty hormonal changes can throw their sleep schedules off kilter, leading them to stay up late and sleep late. College students often stay up late studying or going out, and may have to get up earlier in the morning for classes. They can also plan their schedules so they don’t have to get up as early, making it easier to maintain a late bedtime,” Keeley says.

“The problems for the college age group occurs when they go out into the work world and are suddenly required to get up early for work every day, but they stay up late anyway out of habit,” Keeley says. “It’s hard to train your body to go to bed at an earlier time, but it can be done.”

Tips for Night Owls
If you’re stuck in a pattern of staying up late, Keeley says there are several things you can do to get yourself to bed earlier:

  1. Get up at the same time every day. A consistent wake time every day, regardless of what time you go to bed, can help add more consistency to your sleep schedule. “You may go to bed at 1 am one night, midnight another, but if you consistently wake up at 6 am daily, even on weekends, you’ll become tired earlier, which will eventually make it easier to get to bed earlier.”
  2. Turn off the lights. When you lay down to sleep, make sure there is no light in your view, whether it’s coming from the moon, an alarm clock or your cell phone. Get room darkening curtains, move your cell phone across the room, and turn the alarm clock around to avoid the light stimulation that can keep you awake.
  3. Take a warm bath. Warm water not only relaxes you, when you get out of the tub your body cools down, which mimics the natural cooling that takes place after sundown, which tells your body it is time to go to sleep.
  4. Exercise in the morning. If you’re used to exercising in the evening, try switching to a morning exercise routine if possible. This will give you energy throughout the day, while also helping you tire more easily at night.
  5. Find a job with a more flexible start time. This may be an extreme choice, but if you are struggling to get to bed on time and you have the ability to change your schedule or job to one that is more compatible with your sleep habits, this might be the answer for you. You may still be fighting the biological clock, but a solid eight hours of quality sleep should be the ultimate goal.
  6. Visit a Board Certified Sleep Specialist. Proper sleep hygiene is important to your overall health, so much so that there is an entire branch of medicine for it known as sleep medicine. Physicians who are Board certified in sleep medicine, like Dr. James O’Connor with Shore Physicians Group’s Pulmonary office in Somers Point, can help address any underlying sleep issue you may have, including the inability to go to bed at a reasonable time. Through education, support and treatment including prescribed sleep schedules, timed light exposure and other methods, a sleep medicine physician can help you gradually develop better sleep habits.  Through a sleep study, Dr. O’Connor can also determine if you might have underlying obstructive sleep apnea, which night owls are more prone to developing.
  7. Try cognitive therapy. If you’re really struggling to change your sleep habits, you might want to consider cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy helps you identify and eliminate behaviors that prevent you from getting to bed at a reasonable hour. 

If you are interested in improving your sleep habits, contact your physician for an exam and to find out whether visiting a sleep medicine physician or conducting a sleep study is appropriate for you. For more information or to arrange an appointment for a prescribed sleep study, call (855)633-6818. Be sure to tell the scheduler you would like your sleep study to be performed at Shore's Sleep Center.