People often think being a night owl or a morning bird is a personality quirk. People treat being a night owl or an early riser as a facet of their identity. While sleeping patterns are primarily ruled by our biology, you can train yourself into better health routines. And, some are healthier for you than others. Research last year found that 10 pm is the best time to fall asleep for heart health. A new study has found that night owls are more likely to have heart disease and blood sugar concerns.
Researchers saw that night owls got less aerobic exercise, were more sedentary and burned less fat while resting or active than early risers. The night owls were also more likely to have insulin resistance.
“There is good evidence that being a late sleeper has been linked to a higher risk for metabolic and cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Phyllis Zee, director of the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine at Northwestern Univ. Feinberg School of Medicine. “Several mechanisms have been proposed: sleep loss, circadian misalignment, eating later in the day and being exposed to less morning light and more evening light, which have all been shown to affect insulin sensitivity.”
The biology of sleeping patterns comes from when your body releases melatonin. People who are early birds have melatonin released into their system early in the day, giving them rushes of energy early in the day. Night owls get their boost of melatonin later in the day, making morning hard but afternoons, evenings and nights a productive and alert time for them. You can train yourself into a different sleep pattern, but it takes time, and slipping for just a few days can put you back to square one.
Many night owls are perpetually out of sync with their bodies because of society’s schedules. Whether you work or are retired, days with meetings or errands start earlier than most night owls like. And their bodies aren’t happy about it. The researchers wondered if simply being a night owl causes blood sugar and heart health problems. Or if it’s being a night owl in a world built for early birds. It could be that there is nothing innately unhealthy about being a night owl. The problem may be that night owls aren’t healthy because they can’t sustain an early bird’s lifestyle. This is called “social jet lag.” They live out of sync with their natural rhythm.
“This [problem] extends beyond just [blood sugar concerns] or just heart disease,” said the study’s senior author Steven Malin, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology and health at Rutgers Univ. “It may point to a bigger societal issue. How are we helping people who may be in misalignment? Are we as a society forcing people to behave in ways that might actually be putting them at risk?”
As 30 percent of people are night owls, more research is needed so we can take steps to help people take care of their health. A large portion of the population is currently facing higher health risks just because of being more alert at night and having a later bedtime. Perhaps medical intervention is needed. Or, maybe we need more flexible schedules for night owls.