Night Owls?

I recently did a Facebook Live on Sleep – which is here – and I was asked afterwards whether being a ‘night owl’ was damaging to your health. My instinctive reaction was ‘yes’ because I’m always telling people that the best sleeping pattern is to be in bed by about 10.30 and to rise at 6.30. I genuinely believe this on a personal so my answer is ‘yes’. The reason I believe this is because of what I’ve read. But a simple ‘yes’ is simply not good enough. So, as it’s been a while since I’ve read about sleep, I had to go back to the literature to find out a better answer than ‘yes’. Although the answer is still ‘yes’…… kind of.

As you may be aware we all have a circadian rhythm. An internal clock that keeps everything ticking over nicely, driven by the chemical and biological rhythms of our bodies.
And it is true that some of us have a propensity towards being morning larks and some of us have a propensity towards being night owls. That’s the way our circadian rhythms are. The other factor we need to consider is that we need about 8 hours of sleep. Now – from what I read – I’d say – the 8 hours is a little more important than the timing of when we start and end sleep. To a degree if you are a night owl and like to go to bed at 12 then this is ok. You are programmed to go to bed at that time by your circadian rhythms. I’m not sure I wholly agree with this – I think we artificially keep ourselves awake beyond a sensible time to retire – but I’m going to go with it! So – if you are a night owl and want to go to bed at 12 then fine. But – and here’s where it starts to get interesting and where the problem lies – you still need 8 hours sleep. So that will take you to 8 a.m. The problem with this is that for the majority of people sleeping until 8 is not an option. Most of us start work at 9 (or earlier) and have to travel to work. So, at best, your morning, starting at 8, is going to be a hurried affair with little time to take stock of the day, have breakfast, and emerge into the day slowly and deliberately.

A study by Northumbria University in 2018 found that it is such social factors, or the choices that people engage in when being night owls, that causes some of the problems. They found that people who go to bed later tend to have unhealthier diets, consume more alcohol, sugars, caffeinated drinks and fast food than early risers. You are maybe more inclined to drink coffee later because all of the other signs that your body relies on to get to sleep, for example it being dark, are pushing you to go to sleep – but you don’t. Also if you go to bed at 12 and need to be up at 6 then you have lost two hours sleep so maybe you then drink more coffee (or caffeine) to stay awake during the day. When tired and stressed we tend to grab high sugar high fat snacks because these are easy sources for our bodies. I’m confident that at 11 p.m. you are unlikely to think – ‘tell you what, I’ll rustle up a salad!’?

In the Northumbria University study night owls consistently reported more erratic eating patterns as they had a tendency to miss breakfast and eat later in the day. Probably, I imagine, because they didn’t have time for breakfast with getting up later or were tired and lacking motivation to make something. Fatigue has a huge impact on motivation. Also, possibly as a consequence of erratic diet, the diet of night owls was found to contain less grains, rye and vegetables and they ate fewer, but larger, meals. Morning larks, interestingly, eat slightly more fruit and vegetables per day.

This could explain why night owls have a higher risk of suffering from chronic disease. Eating late in the day was linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes because circadian rhythms influence the way glucose is metabolised in in the body. Night owls often eat close to going to bed which increases blood glucose levels just before they go to bed which could negatively effect metabolism as this is not in tune with biological processes. People with an evening preference were 2.5 times more likely to have type 2 diabetes than those with a morning preference.

Why is 8 hours important? In his book ‘Why We Sleep’ Matthew Walker explains that we have a pattern to our sleep. At the start of the night our sleep is predominantly NREM (Deep Sleep) heavy and at the end of the night (or early morning) our sleep is REM heavy. Both have important functions that we can’t afford to miss. So, assuming whatever your bedtime is – let’s say you are definitely a midnight person (bear in mind I’m not convinced by this argument – I still say 10.30 is the best time for us biologically!) and you stop up late till 2 in the morning, your body started to try and do what it needed to do at 12, so you have lost what it was trying to do between 12 and 2. You’ve lost that NREM sleep that does a lot of sorting out of memories before consolidating them.

One thing that night owls do is sleep less during the week and then catch up on a weekend. Walker is clear. What you have lost as a consequence of the shortened nights sleep can not be caught up by sleeping for longer on a weekend. Not only that but you then end up losing lots of hours from your weekend which could have been used more productively and can put you further out of step with the society you are living in.

One thing that is worthy of consideration though, if we accept that it’s ok to be a night owl and sleep 12 till 8 or 2 till 10, or whatever, is that if this works for you then maybe we need more flexible working and social arrangements so that night owls are not placed in this position of their biological chemistry being badly aligned to social expectations? Personally I’m not convinced that staying up till 2 in the morning is good for you. But maybe the problem is that night owls have to live a life of misalignment?

There is a well research health impact. Shift work, which often places people into the night owl bracket whether they like it or not, is the only non-chemical item on the American Cancer Society’s carcinogens list, and other evidence shows that night owls can experience weight gain and diabetes because of diet, and are more susceptible to depression and psychiatric disorders. Now this is an interesting conundrum. Usually we associate a poor sleep pattern with being a symptom of depression and poor mental health. But actually, Walker says that we need to start exploring if it is in-fact poor sleep that is a cause of these things. The reality is it probably works both ways.

This is not fatalistic though! If you are a night owl and you want to stick to being a night owl then so be it but be conscious of what you can do to mitigate any negative factors – in essence that’s what all self care is about.

Make sure that you get 8 hours of sleep a night. I’m convinced this is a mush more decisive factor in your well being than whether you go to bed at 10, 11 or 12. This will give you a problem though depending on what time you need to be up the next day. But it is crucial as you can’t catch up on what you lost at the weekend.

So, second, don’t try and catch up on weekend! Get 8 hours and get them at the same time day in day out!

Next, watch what you eat. Be particularly careful what you eat late on a night and don’t eat just before you go to bed. Also, try and give yourself some space on a morning to eat breakfast. Watch your choices throughout the day. It seems to me that this is a significant factor rather than simply the time you go to bed. Are you making poor choices because you are tired because you are not getting your 8 hours because you went to bed at such a time that you couldn’t get them?

If you want to change your sleep pattern it is doable I believe. But, like everything, it takes time. There are idea in these blogs that might help:
How do you sleep?
And Sleep….
They both contain the same information

The secret to success is not to suddenly try to change from going to bed at midnight to going to bed at 10! That’s not going to work and will lead to frustration. Try to adjust your going to bed time by about 20 minutes a week. Crucially go to bed at the same time every night and once you have adjusted to that try another 20 minutes.

Episode 2 of How to Thrive is all about sleep




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