‘Night owls’ who struggle to wake up in the morning could benefit from a few tweaks to their sleeping patterns, according to researchers.
A small study found that, over a three-week period, it was possible to shift the circadian rhythm of so-called night owls using four simple interventions – and there wasn’t a sleeping pill in sight.
The tweaks could lead to significant improvements in sleep/wake timings, better performance in the mornings, improved eating habits and a decrease in depression and stress, say researchers.
So what’s the secret?
In this study, 22 healthy individuals – who had an average bedtime of 2.30am and wake-up time of 10.15am – were asked to make four changes to their sleep routine.
Firstly, they were told to wake up 2-3 hours before regular wake-up time and maximise outdoor light during the mornings. They were also told to go to bed 2-3 hours before their usual bedtime and limit light exposure in the evening.
Another rule was that they had to keep sleep/wake times fixed on both work days and free days (such as the weekend). They also had to have set food times: eat breakfast as soon as possible after waking up, eat lunch at the same time each day, and refrain from eating dinner after 7pm.
The study, conducted by the Universities of Birmingham and Surrey in the UK and Monash University in Australia, showed participants were able to bring forward their sleep/wake timings by two hours, while having no negative effect on sleep duration.
Overall, participants reported a decrease in feelings of depression and stress, as well as in daytime sleepiness – according to the researchers.
Lead researcher Dr Elise Facer-Childs, from Monash University’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, said the findings reveal simple interventions can change the sleep habits of night owls and, in turn, reduce negative elements of mental health and sleepiness, and improve performance.
Study co-author Dr Andrew Bagshaw, from the University of Birmingham, said: “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.”
Dr Facer-Childs added that night owls, compared to morning larks, tended to be more compromised in our society, due to having to fit to schedules that are out of sync with their preferred patterns. “By acknowledging these differences and providing tools to improve outcomes, we can go a long way to achieve optimal productivity and performance,” she concluded.