International Research Study: Shifting the Circadian Rhythm of ‘Night Owls’
Node Smith, ND
A simple tweak to the sleeping patterns of ‘night owls’ – people with extreme late sleeping and waking habits – could lead to significant improvements in sleep/wake timings, improved performance in the mornings, better eating habits and a decrease in depression and stress.
It’s possible to shift circadian rhythm of ‘night owls’ using non-pharmacological & practical interventions
New international research by the Universities of Birmingham and Surrey in the UK, and Monash University in Australia, showed that, over a three-week period, it was possible to shift the circadian rhythm of ‘night owls’ using non-pharmacological and practical interventions.
Participants reported a decrease in feelings of depression and stress
The study, published in Sleep Medicine, showed participants were able to bring forward their sleep/wake timings by two hours, while having no negative effect on sleep duration. In addition, participants reported a decrease in feelings of depression and stress, as well as in daytime sleepiness.
“Our research findings highlight the ability of a simple non-pharmacological intervention to phase advance ‘night owls’, reduce negative elements of mental health and sleepiness, as well as manipulate peak performance times in the real world,” lead researcher Dr Elise Facer-Childs from Monash University’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health said.
Who(ot) are ‘Night owls’?
‘Night owls’ are individuals whose internal body clock dictates later-than-usual sleep and wake times – in this study participants had an average bedtime of 2.30 am and wake-up time of 10.15 am.
Disturbances to sleep/wake system linked to a variety of health issues
Disturbances to the sleep/wake system have been linked to a variety of health issues, including mood swings, increased morbidity and mortality rates, and declines in cognitive and physical performance.
Having a late sleep pattern is in-congruent with standard societal days
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.”
Co-author Dr Andrew Bagshaw from the University of Birmingham
“We wanted to see if there were simple things people could do at home to solve this issue. This was successful, on average allowing people to get to sleep and wake up around two hours earlier than they were before. Most interestingly, this was also associated with improvements in mental wellbeing and perceived sleepiness, meaning that it was a very positive outcome for the participants. We now need to understand how habitual sleep patterns are related to the brain, how this links with mental wellbeing and whether the interventions lead to long-term changes.”
Twenty-two healthy individuals participated in the study
For a period of three weeks participants in the experimental group were asked to:
- Wake up 2-3 hours before regular wake up time and maximize outdoor light during the mornings.
- Go to bed 2-3 hours before habitual bedtime and limit light exposure in the evening.
- Keep sleep/wake times fixed on both work days and free days.
- Have breakfast as soon as possible after waking up, eat lunch at the same time each day, and refrain from eating dinner after 7 pm.
Results highlighted increase in cognitive (reaction time) and physical (grip strength) performance
The results highlighted an increase in cognitive (reaction time) and physical (grip strength) performance during the morning when tiredness is often very high in ‘night owls’, as well as a shift in peak performance times from evening to afternoon. It also increased the number of days in which breakfast was consumed and led to better mental wellbeing, with participants reporting a decrease in feelings of stress and depression.
Establishing simple routines
Establishing simple routines could help ‘night owls’ adjust their body clocks and improve their overall physical and mental health. Insufficient levels of sleep and circadian misalignment can disrupt many bodily processes putting us at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes,” said professor Debra Skene from the University of Surrey
Dr Facer-Childs said ‘night owls’, compared to ‘morning larks’, tended to be more compromised in our society due to having to fit to work/school schedules that are out of sync with their preferred patterns.
Acknowledging differences and providing tools to improve outcomes
“By acknowledging these differences and providing tools to improve outcomes we can go a long way in a society that is under constant pressure to achieve optimal productivity and performance,” she said.
This intervention could also be applied within more niche settings, such as industry or within sporting sectors, which have a key focus on developing strategies to maximize productivity and optimize performance at certain times and in different conditions.
Node Smith, ND, is a naturopathic physician in Humboldt, Saskatchewan and associate editor and continuing education director for NDNR. His mission is serving relationships that support the process of transformation, and that ultimately lead to healthier people, businesses and communities. His primary therapeutic tools include counselling, homeopathy, diet and the use of cold water combined with exercise. Node considers health to be a reflection of the relationships a person or a business has with themselves, with God and with those around them. In order to cure disease and to heal, these relationships must be specifically considered. Node has worked intimately with many groups and organizations within the naturopathic profession, and helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic Revitalization (ANR), which works to promote and facilitate experiential education in vitalism.
Node Smith graduated from the National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) in 2017, and is currently licensed as a naturopathic physician in Oregon and working towards becoming licensed in Saskatchewan, Canada as well.