Is Being a Night Owl Ruining Your Health?

To find the few studies that say people who burn the midnight oil and snooze until noon are smarter and perform better on cognitive tasks taken later in the day than early birds, you may have to pull an all-nighter.
11/15/2014 09:54am ET | Updated January 15, 2015
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By Mary Bolster for

Want proof that we live in an early bird world? Look up synonyms for night owl. And don't laugh too loud when you see words like "corrupt," "depraved" "lewd," "unprincipled," and "wanton."

If you want further proof, scroll through the dozens of studies that say people who hit the hay early and rise with the sun are happier, healthier, and less likely to be alcoholics or substance abusers than those "degenerate reprobates" who stay up late.

To find the few studies that say people who burn the midnight oil and snooze until noon are smarter and perform better on cognitive tasks taken later in the day than early birds, you may have to pull an all-nighter.

Before you despair and drink yourself into oblivion, as night owls are apparently wont to do, take comfort in this: It's not your morals, it's your genes. And you don't have to give up your "wanton" ways to survive in an early bird world, according to two sleep experts we consulted.

It's In Your Genes

Scientists have discovered a genetic variant that accounts for the differences in sleep patterns between morning people (often called "larks") and night owls, says Michael Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist. The variation may influence your tendency to rise earlier or later by as much as an hour, he says. "You are a night owl if you don't get tired until 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning and you want to sleep until 10:00 a.m."

Respect Mother Nature

If you're truly a night owl, fighting your genes in an effort to be a lark may be a losing battle, says Dr. Breus, who suggests embracing your natural cycle and stop feeling bad about wanting to stay up late and sleep in. "It's not good to try to change what you are," he says.

Tweak Your Routine

A better strategy is to play to your strengths, says Dr. Breus. Look for jobs that start later in the day or ask your boss about flex time. Don't make important decisions or have important conversations early in the morning. If your partner is an early bird, work out an arrangement where you do all your heavy lifting in the later hours while he or she covers the morning hours. "My wife is more of a night owl and I'm more of an early bird, so I wake up with the kids. I make their lunches and take them to school. That's how we adapt our lives," says Dr. Breus.

Sleep Deprivation is the Enemy

A lack of sleep is the real problem, says Larisa Wainer, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist at Morris Psychological Group in Morristown, New Jersey. "Night owls don't get as much sleep because the world's schedule is built for early risers and early-to-bed folks," she says. That sleep deficit, Wainer says, can lead to scads of health problems like anxiety and depression, weight gain (by disrupting appetite-regulating hormones), increased stress (by elevating cortisol levels), a spike in blood pressure and a boost in blood sugar, which raises the risk for diabetes. "People who stay up late can be successful and healthy," insists Wainer. The trick is to covet your sleep.

Protect Your Sleep

Just because you go to bed late doesn't mean you aren't entitled to a healthy eight hours. To ensure that, follow these guidelines, says Wainer.

- Stick to a regular schedule.

- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and overeating late at night.

- Shut down screens (TV, computer, smart phones) an hour before sleeping. "The blue light screens emit inhibits the release of melatonin," says Wainer.

- Keep your bedroom cool and dark while you're sleeping (even after the sun comes up). Use blackout curtains, if necessary.

- Take naps when you can to make up for lost sleep at night.

Make a Shift

Sometimes life forces you to act like a lark, says Wainer, who was a night owl until her son was born and she had to make changes in her schedule to accommodate his early risings. To get to bed earlier, she advises limiting your exposure to bright light in the evening and sleeping with the shades up so the light falls on your face in the morning. If your bedroom is naturally dark, turn the lights on as soon as you get up or step outside into the sunshine. Bright light, whether it's artificial or natural, signals to your brain that it's time to wake up, says Wainer.

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