June 13, 2019
2 min read

Adjusting night owls’ sleep patterns may improve mental well-being

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Using a nonpharmacological intervention to adjust the sleeping patterns of night owls—people with extreme late sleeping and waking habits — improved elements of performance, mental health and sleep timing, according to study findings.

"Having a late sleep pattern puts you at odds with the standard societal days, which can lead to a range of adverse outcomes from daytime sleepiness to poorer mental wellbeing," Andrew Bagshaw, PhD, from the University of Birmingham School of Psychology in the U.K. said in a press release. "We wanted to see if there were simple things people could do at home to solve this issue.

Researchers used a randomized control trial design to examine whether using a simple intervention—which targeted light exposure (through earlier wake up/sleep times), fixed meal times, caffeine intake and exercise—could shift the late timing of night owls to an earlier time in a real-world setting. Participants wore actigraphs to monitor sleep and rest-activity patterns and completed daily sleep diaries; they also completed questionnaires pre- and post-intervention.

Over a -week period, 22 heathy participants were instructed to:

  • wake up and go to bed 23 hours before habitual wake-up time and bedtime;
  • maximize outdoor light exposure in the mornings and limit light in the evenings;
  • keep sleep/wake times fixed between workdays and days off;
  • have breakfast as soon as possible after waking up, eat lunch at the same time each day and not eat dinner after 7 p.m.;
  • exercise in the morning;
  • not nap after 4 p.m.; and
  • not drink coffee after 3 p.m.

Bagshaw and colleagues found that participants had earlier sleep/wake timings of about 2 hours, without any adverse effect on sleep duration. Participants also reported a decrease in daytime sleepiness and improved cognitive (reaction time) and physical (grip strength) performance measures in the morning, according to the study.

Image of waking up 
Source: Adobse Stock

In addition, self-reported ratings of depression, anxiety and stress significantly decreased following the intervention, with the overall score on the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS) decreasing from 19.8 to 11.2. Splitting DASS into depression, anxiety and stress scores separately showed a significant reduction in depression (from 5.5 to 2.3 P = .025) and stress (from 9.5 to 5.7; P = .0061).

“Within the general population, of which a large proportion are night owls, these findings could offer a simple strategy to improve mental well-being and performance. Within clinical settings, further treatments for mental health in depression and stress could be explored specifically targeting circadian disruption without the need for pharmacological agents,” the researchers wrote in Sleep Medicine. “Despite the need for further research, this remains an exciting prospect for a society that is increasingly suffering from poor health, reduced mental well-being and under continuous pressure to achieve personal best performance.” – by Savannah Demko

Disclosure: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.