Resetting “night owl” body clock improves mental health and wellbeing

Tweaking sleep patterns of “night owls,” people with extreme late sleeping and waking habits, could lead significant improvements in sleep and wake timings, improved performance in the mornings, better eating habits, and a decrease in depression and stress, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Birmingham and the University of Surrey in England, and the Monash University in Australia, and published in the journal Sleep Medicine.

Researchers looked at 22 healthy individuals for a period of three weeks. The experimental group was asked to wake up two to three hours before regular wake up time and maximize outdoor light during the mornings, go to bed two to three hours before habitual bedtime and limit light exposure in the evening, keep sleep and wake times fixed on both work days and free days, and 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 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 wellbeing, with participants reporting a decrease in feelings of stress and depression, according to the study abstract.

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 2:30 a.m. and wake-up time of 10:15 a.m., according to the study abstract.

Disturbances to the sleep and 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. Additionally, insufficient levels of sleep and circadian misalignment can disrupt many bodily processes putting us at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, researchers said.  

Night owls, compared to morning larks, tended to be more compromised in the society due to having to fit to work and school schedules that are out of sync with their preferred patterns, said lead author Elise Facer-Childs, PhD, from Monash University's Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health.

"By acknowledging these differences and providing tools to improve outcomes we can go a long way in a society that is under constant pressure to achieve optimal productivity and performance," she said.

This intervention could also be applied within more niche settings, such as industry or within sporting sectors, which have a key focus on developing strategies to maximize productivity and optimize performance at certain times and in different conditions.