Health and Wellness

Simple tweaks can help night owls retrain their body clocks and enhance their well-being, study suggests

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Waking up at the crack of dawn may be easy for some, but those who like to go to bed later often struggle.

With an internal body clock that often commands later-than-usual sleep and wake times, studies have shown that evening people — dubbed "night owls" — can be more at risk to certain health issues, especially if their sleep patterns are disrupted or cut short.

A study published this week in "Sleep Medicine" has suggested that late risers don't necessarily have to resort to the likes of medication to improve their body clocks — but could rather make simple adjustments to their sleep cycle.

In a recent experiment, international researchers asked some 22 healthy individuals — who typically fall asleep at 2:30 a.m. and wake up at 10:15 a.m. — to bring their sleeping routine forward, to see if it's possible to shift a night owl's circadian rhythm through simple, non-pharmacological revisions.

The experiment, which was conducted by scientists from the Universities of Surrey and Birmingham in Britain, and Monash University in Australia, saw participants follow a list of simple modifications over the course of three weeks:

  • Wake up 2 to 3 hours before regular wake up time
  • Eat breakfast as soon as possible after waking up
  • Get as much outdoor, natural light in the mornings as possible
  • Exercise only during the morning hours
  • Take lunch at the same time each day
  • Avoid caffeine after 3 p.m.
  • No naps after 4 p.m.
  • Avoid eating any food after 7 p.m. — have an early dinner
  • Go to bed 2 to 3 hours earlier than usually do
  • Limit the amount of light exposure in the evening
  • Make sure that your sleep and wake up times remain the same each day

After the three week-long study period, results highlighted an increase in cognitive and physical performance during the morning hours, in addition to a shift in peak performance times from evening to afternoon.

On top of this, researchers noticed that participants were reporting reduced feelings surrounding stress and depression. Participants managed to successfully shift their body clocks two hours forward during the study, the report stated.

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"Establishing simple routines could help 'night owls' adjust their body clocks and improve their overall physical and mental health," Debra Skene, professor from University of Surrey, said in a statement on Monday.

This international study also comes hot on the heels of the World Health Organization (WHO) re-evaluating burnout as a type of work-induced stress. According to WHO's new definition, burnout can be recognized as feelings of energy exhaustion, increased mental distance from a person's job or reduced professional efficacy.

Compared to "morning larks," lead researcher Dr Elise Facer-Childs, stated that night owls tend to be more compromised in society, as they often have their schedules dictated by work or school commitments.

"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," Facer-Childs, from Monash University's Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, said in a statement.

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