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Night Owls - Have you ever wanted to be a "morning person"?

There are disorders/symptom sets that most people never associate with non-pharmaceutical treatment. One of these is “being a night owl”. Whether you just can’t sleep at night or you “function” better at night than during the day, being a night owl can have some pretty serious negative side effects on one’s quality of life. Most of the modern American world is based around the “9-5” work schedule and our daily activities reflect this. Many people I know who describe themselves as “night owls” also say that they can’t see themselves living any other way. Some believe that they literally cannot sleep during the “early night” hours. Some even think that they are born this way and will never change. Studies show that the average sleep hours of a “night owl” are 2:30AM to 10:15AM.

This sleep schedule is linked to a long list of negative side effects:

  • mood swings

  • increased morbidity

  • decreased cognitive performance

  • decreased physical performance

  • obesity

  • decreased physical activity

  • diabetes

  • decreased overall sleep/poor sleep quality

  • depression

  • overall stress

How can you not be a night owl? Well, for a while no one has been 100% sure if it’s “fixable”. In fact, a study at University of Surrey determined that a gene called Period3 can regulate our preference for night or morning. That being said, for around 80% of the population, lifestyle is the main determiner of sleep schedule.

Some treatments for insomnia over the years have included the following:

  • orexin receptor antagonists (medication to regulate the sleep-wake cycle)

  • sedatives to induce sleep at a specific time

  • antihistamines to induce sleep

  • psychotherapy to increase healthier sleep habits and behaviors

We are not going to focus on the pharmaceutical treatments for these sleep issues, though, because recently it has been determined (by the University of Birmingham) that night owls can “retrain their body clocks” without medication. This study took 22 individuals who self-identify as “night owls” (who slept on average as a group from 2:30AM to 10:15AM) and split them into a control group and an experimental group to be observed for three weeks.

The control group was left to sleep on their own schedules with no interference or treatment.

The experimental group was asked to do the following:

  • Wake up 2-3hrs before their regular wakeup time

  • Get maximum outdoor light in the mornings

  • Go to bed 2-3hrs before normal bedtime

  • Limit light exposure in the evening

  • Keep sleep/wake times every day (not just work days)

  • Have breakfast ASAP after waking up

  • Eat lunch at the same time every day

  • Refrain from eating dinner after 7PM

Not only did the experimental group become “morning larks” by being able to keep their new sleep schedule well after the study had ended, they also reaped the benefits of their new sleep schedules:

  • increased cognitive performance

  • increased physical performance

  • shifted “peek” performance from evening time to afternoon

  • decreased feelings of stress and depression

  • improved overall sense of health and well-being

A wonderful benefit of this behavioral treatment is that it not only addresses the actual sleep time of the participants, but it also incorporates light therapy by increasing outdoor light in the mornings and decreasing light at night effectively decreasing overall artificial light while increasing overall natural light. This is essentially an addition of light therapy to the treatment of insomnia/late sleep schedule.

Light therapy is the addition of natural light (or in the absence of natural light artificial light that is made to mimic natural outdoor light) increasing hormones called glucocorticoids which control metabolism, stress, inflammation, and immunity. This type of therapy has been shown to help treat sleep disorders as well as depression (specifically seasonal affective disorder).

What about artificial light? Why is it important that we are decreasing it at night? Exposure to artificial light at night has been shown to cause the following:

  • Breast cancer

  • Circadian phase disruptions

  • Sleep disorders

  • Vision impairment

  • It may possibly cause the following as well:

- Prostate development disruption

- Ovary development disruption

- Colorectal development disruption

- Cardiovascular disease

- Reproduction disruption

- Endometriosis

- Gastrointestinal and digestive problems

- Diabetes

- Obesity

- Depression

Exposure to artificial light at night time suppresses melatonin secretion and increases latency of sleep onset as well as alertness - meaning that it keeps you awake. Continuous suppression of melatonin can affect the body’s ability to secrete melatonin on its own and can lead to long-term sleep disruption.

So, basically what I’m saying is – If you’re a “night owl” and you find yourself struggling with any of the negative effects mentioned here, there is a way out! Light therapy, meal timing, and routine sleep schedule have been proven to be effective when used together to not only make you a ‘morning person’, but to also correct the negative side effects of being a night person that are ailing you.

Here’s what you can do to fix it:

  • Avoid bright lights and limit all light within 1hr of ‘bedtime’

  • Make your bedtime 8 hours before your ideal wake up time *(I don’t mean “ideally I would like to be up by noon”, I mean “if I were a morning person, my ideal wakeup time would 5AM/6AM”)

  • Wake up at that “ideal” time and get up and out of bed

  • Get out in the sunlight ASAP after waking up! *(use artificial light that is MADE to be very similar to outdoor sunlight if you don’t have access to sunlight on a daily basis)

  • Eat soon after waking (ASAP)

  • Stick to the same lunch time every day (ideally around noon/1PM)

  • Stop eating after 7PM (if you get hungry, have a light snack not a large meal)

  • Stick to this schedule EVERY day, not just work days/week days and not just when it’s convenient

  • Reap the benefits, morning person.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions?



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