Some of us leap out of bed energetic and eager to get on with the day; for others, emerging is left until the last possible minute. And while most adapt their lives to fit early bird or night owl tendencies, scientists say there are health consequences for the night owl, including an increased risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Findings from a recent study reveal that sleep-wake cycles are associated with the body’s metabolism. Researchers studied two groups (early- and late-risers) based on “chronotype”—a natural propensity to seek activity and sleep at different times.
Night owls are reported to have a higher risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease when compared with early birds, said Steven Malin, PhD, lead author of the study and expert in metabolism at Rutgers University.
“A potential explanation is they become misaligned with their circadian rhythms,” he said. “This observation advances our understanding of how circadian rhythms impact health and could be used as a factor to predict an individual’s disease risk.”
Researchers used advanced imaging to assess participant body mass and composition, insulin sensitivity and took breath samples to measure fat and carbohydrate metabolism. Participants ate a calorie- and nutrition-controlled diet and were tested while at rest before completing two 15-minute sessions of treadmill exercise.
The results showed that early birds used more fat for energy at both rest and during exercise and were more insulin-sensitive. The study revealed night owls are more insulin-resistant and require more insulin to lower blood glucose levels, and also favor carbohydrates as an energy source. This group’s impaired ability to respond to insulin can be harmful as it points to a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In addition, night owls get less exercise and burn less fat than early birds—allowing fat to build up in the bloodstream, which can set the stage for heart disease.
Investigators said the cause for the shift in metabolic preference between early birds and night owls is unknown and needs further investigation.
How to become an early bird
“You can’t be both and can’t easily transition from being a morning person to an evening person or an evening person to a morning person,” he said. “But you can make changes to adjust slowly.”
So, how do you make the change?
“Go to bed 15 minutes earlier and wake up 15 minutes earlier,” Malin said. “This can be expanded by another 15-minute window.”
Both night owls and early birds can take steps to get optimal rest. The first step is to put down your phone:
“Exposure to blue light from devices before bed can also make matters worse, as blue light tells cells to stay awake,” said Avidan. “Blue light is very stimulating and inhibits melatonin and causes sleep delays.”
If you’re looking to reduce blue light, your optometrist may recommend special eyeglass lenses. Blue light-blocking prescription and nonprescription lenses and computer eyewear can be ordered online.
More tips for night owls looking to adapt to early bird patterns:
- Eat breakfast as soon as you get up, and eat lunch at the same time every day. Make dinner the lightest meal of the day.
- Get outside when the sun is shining (especially mornings), as this can prompt your body’s circadian system to reset.
- Exercise in the morning.
- Monitor caffeine intake.
- Make sure the bedroom is quiet, dark and relaxing, and is at a comfortable temperature.
- Charge phones in another room.
- Mentally unwind and relax before bedtime.
- Have a routine that gets you ready for bed, like taking a shower, reading or writing in a journal.
- Get in bed only when you’re tired.
Things to avoid:
- Afternoon and evening caffeine, which can affect your body for up to eight hours
- Alcohol in the evening, which can affect how you breathe when you sleep and your sleep quality
- Large meals late at night, which can cause indigestion and higher blood sugar levels overnight
- Naps after 3 p.m., which can make you less tired when it’s time for bed
Connection between sleep quality and overall health
Getting enough sleep is important, but good sleep quality is also essential. And sleep deprivation can have serious health consequences—from higher rates of depression to impaired immune function. The CDC reports that seniors aged 61 to 64 should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep while seniors 65 and older should get seven to eight hours. High-quality sleep means you’re sleeping about 85% of the total time spent in bed, that you’re able to fall asleep within 30 minutes or less, and waking up no more than once per night (remaining awake for 20 minutes or less before falling back to sleep).
If you or loved ones can’t seem to get enough restorative sleep, a doctor or sleep specialist can offer more guidance on possible causes and help you explore options for improving sleep quality.