6 Rules for Healthy Living That Every Night Owl Should Know
You still need seven to eight hours of sleep every night. This is the golden rule for you, and everybody else, really, says Rafael Pelayo, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. While some health issues are unique to having a sleep schedule that's out of sync with the rest of the world's (more on that in a minute), many of the health problems you're at higher risk for (hunger hormones being out of whack, higher inflammation levels, poor judgment skills) come from getting too little sleep overall, not just from going to bed late. You'll minimize your risk if you can get seven to eight hours each night. If you're a serious night owl (think regularly going to bed at 2 a.m.), you might want to try (if you can—we know it's easier said than done) to adjust your work schedule.
When you're late to bed, late to rise, you're probably spending most of your waking hours in minimal sunlight. That's bad news for your mood. Light is a powerful mood influencer, and with your schedule, "You're basically giving yourself Seasonal Affective Disorder," says Michael Grandner, PhD, assistant professor and director of the Sleep and Health Research Program and the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic at the University of Arizona. (Not to mention the fact that people who are genetically predisposed to late bedtimes may also be more likely to develop depression.) Grandner's recommendation: Get bright light as soon as you wake up. Light boxes (which mimic superbright morning sunlight) work well, but so does the old-fashioned method of actually going outside. Aim for 20 to 30 minutes of bright light as soon after you wake up as possible. As a bonus, a dose of light first thing can help you move your bedtime up, if that's something you're interested in doing. (Grandner tells patients to combine light as early as possible with minimal artificial light at night to break the night-owl mold.) And we hope it goes without saying that if you think you're suffering from depression, ask your doctor for help.
Both Grandner and Pelayo say that their night-owl patients tend to eat more just because they're up later. Grandner doesn't give his patients a cut-off time to stop eating for the night, but he does recommend avoiding large meals late at night. Instead, he suggests eating only snacks, and only if you're actually hungry. The researchers behind one study, however, give 8 p.m. as the latest time you should eat. They found that women who were night owls were more than twice as likely to have metabolic syndrome (excess belly fat, high blood sugar and overall unhealthy fat levels) than morning people, which they believe may be due to a combination of eating past 8 p.m. (previous research found that late sleepers tend to eat more past this time) and too much artificial light at night, which may affect your metabolism.
There's some evidence that night owls are at higher risk of cardiovascular issues than larks, says Grandner, possibly because having a sleep schedule that's out of sync with the natural light-dark cycle of the day puts stress on your body. Consistent exercise is a well-documented way to help keep your heart healthy, but you need to be mindful about when you do it. "Night owls tend to perform better physically in the afternoon or evening," says Grandner, but a very intense workout very late at night could keep you up even later, he adds. Meaning that just because you can fit HIIT sessions in at midnight doesn't necessarily mean you should. If you favor intense exercise over, say, walking or yoga (which might actually help you fall asleep), experiment with your gym schedule until you find a time that's late enough for you to feel like your body is ready for it, but not so late that it pushes your bedtime back even later.
Grandner says that a common problem among his night-owl patients is a lack of social interaction, especially if they keep odd working hours, or work remotely, due to their sleep schedule. "They tend to be more isolated," he says. Research shows that loneliness can have serious effects on your health, even increasing your risk of death (from any cause) by 45 percent. Try making regular lunch dates with friends, finding a social group that meets in the evening when you know you're up (night-owl book club, anyone?), or, if you're the work-from-home type, taking your laptop to a coffee shop or a communal workspace nearby.
This rule actually applies to everyone, but it's particularly important for people who normally stay up late and might attempt to tuck in much earlier for, say, an early morning flight or meeting. Trying to fall asleep when you're not tired yet fuels insomnia, says Grandner, because the more you lie awake in bed, the more your body and brain associate the bed itself with being awake instead of being asleep. Try to limit lights (like the ones from your tablet and phone screens) in the hours before bed so you can naturally drift off when your body is ready to.
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