Highs and lows of being a ‘night-owl’

young beautiful hispanic woman at home bedroom lying in bed late at night trying to sleep suffering insomnia sleeping disorder or scared on nightmares looking sad worried and stressed

Previous studies have shown that people who frequently stay up until the early hours of the morning are placing their health and well-being at risk.

A 2018 study among 433,268 adults found that night owls are more at risk of developing diabetes, and 10 percent more likely to die prematurely when compared with individuals who identified as morning people.

Given the high number of people who are naturally inclined to go to bed late and wake up late, it is essential to understand what impact their rhythms may have on their health, and why.

All humans — and other animals — have internal regulating mechanisms, or ‘body clocks’, which allow a person to adapt to natural day or night cycles, ‘telling’ them when to eat, rehydrate, defecate, have sex, and sleep. This daily time-keeping system is called ‘circadian’ from the Latin ‘circa diem,’ which means ‘approximately a day,’ deriving from duration of a cycle of earth rotation.

Some people feel the most refreshed early in the morning, but feel like they are falling asleep by 9:00pm, and people who are most active in the evenings and have trouble waking up in the morning.These two broad categories are usually referred to as morning larks and night owls, respectively

The mismatch between a person’s biological time and social time — which most of us have experienced in the form of jet lag — is a common issue for night owls trying to follow a normal working day. Night owls experience something akin to jet lag every day. More precisely, connectivity was lower in certain brain regions of night owls than it was in morning larks.

Essentially, this meant that evening types had shorter attention spans, slower reactions, and less energy than morning people.They were also more at risk of developing cardiovascular disease, as well as being diagnosed as obese which is a significant risk factor for type 2 diabetes and cancer. Some studies even suggest that night owls have an increased risk of depression when compared with morning larks.

However, most researchers seem to agree that a great deal of these poor outcomes for physical health and mental well-being in the case of night owls may be because they are expected to function and be productive following a morning lark template, which does not suit them.

Researchers are still debating whether or not it would be helpful for night owls to adjust their natural rhythms. A typical work day might last from 9:00am to 5:00pm, but for a night owl, this could result in diminished performance during the morning, lower brain connectivity in regions linked to consciousness, and increased daytime sleepiness.

Night owls might benefit by switching up their routine a little, by going to bed a couple of hours earlier than usual, and waking up a few hours earlier, too. The question of whether night owls should modify their rhythms to try and become ‘morning people’, or whether workplaces should strive to accommodate the different needs of individuals remains highly contentious.

And night owls do have their advantages, which researchers also acknowledge. One study from 1999 argues that “early to bed, early to rise will likely make you anything but wise,” finding that night owls score better on intelligence tests than morning larks.

Furthermore, perhaps unsurprisingly, a more recent study from 2012 found that men who are evening types were able to find more sexual partners, compared with peers who identified as morning people.

But perhaps the solution to the night owl versus morning lark problem is not black and white, and a measure of change has to come both from society at large, and from individuals, as they ‘try on’ different daily rhythms and find the ones that bring the best results for health.