A simple tweak to the sleeping patterns of ‘night owls’ can lead to a decrease in depression and stress, as well as improved eating habits and better performance in the mornings, a new study has revealed.

People who tend to wake later and be at their most active in the evening or into the small hours could see significant improvements in their sleep/wake timings in just three weeks, by taking non-medical, practical steps to shift their circadian rhythms. International research by the Universities of Birmingham and Surrey in the UK and Monash University in Australia showed that participants were able to bring forward their sleep/wake timings by two hours - with no negative impact on the length of sleep.

The study, published in Sleep Medicine journal, found that those who took part reported a decrease in feelings of depression and stress, as well as in daytime tiredness. Disturbances to the sleep/wake system have been linked to a number of health issues, including mood swings, increased illness and mortality rates, and declines in cognitive and physical performance.

The internal body clocks of so-called ‘night owls’ dictate later-than-usual sleep and wake times, with participants in the study reporting an average bedtime of 2.30am and wake-up time of 10.15am. Lead researcher Dr Elise Facer-Childs said that the findings highlight the ability of a simple non-pharmacological intervention to reduce negative elements of mental health and sleepiness, as well as to manipulate peak performance times in the real world.

Participants in the study were asked to wake up at the same time on work and free days, eat breakfast as soon as they could and get as much daylight as possible in the early mornings. 

“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,” added study 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 participants were involved in the study and for a period of three weeks were asked to:

  • Wake up two to three hours before their regular wake-up time and maximise outdoor light during the mornings
  • Go to bed two to three 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 7pm

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.

Dr Facer-Childs, of Monash University, said: “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.” It’s thought that the interventions could also be applied within more niche settings, such as industry or sport, where there is a key focus on maximising productivity and optimising performance at certain times and in different conditions.

Research carried out by ActiveQuote last year showed that almost one in two UK adults could be at risk of illnesses including heart disease, diabetes, obesity and even shortened life expectancy due to their sleeping patterns. Forty nine percent of those polled sleep for a maximum of six hours each night - which can have ‘profound consequences’ on physical health and wellbeing.

Help is at ‘hand’ for anyone wishing to maximise their own sleep pattern thanks to our partner Vitality, which offers rewards including smart watches to health insurance customers. As well as tracking steps, fitness and heart rate, the watch has an alarm function enabling the wearer to set a 30-minute wake-up window, rather than a specific alarm. It then detects when you’re in a light sleep and wakes you up at that point. 

This is just one of the many surprising benefits of health insurance, and it’s always a good idea to compare private medical insurance quotes to find the best benefits for you and your family.