Study: Tweaking night owls’ sleeping patterns have positive impact on mental health and work performance

A new study found that a simple change to the sleeping patterns of night owls or people who have late sleeping habits could result in significant improvements in their mental well-being and performance.

The study conducted by researchers from the Universities of Birmingham and Surrey in the UK and Monash University in Australia revealed that it was possible to shift the circadian rhythm of night owls using non-pharmacological and practical interventions.

The participants were able to bring forward their sleep/wake timings in by two hours while having no negative effect on sleep duration.

“Our research findings highlight the ability of a simple non-pharmacological intervention to phase advance ‘night owls’, reduce negative elements of mental health and sleepiness, as well as manipulate peak performance times in the real world,” said lead researcher Dr. Elise Facer-Childs from Monash University’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health.

Disruptions to the sleep/wake system have been linked to a variety of health issues, including mood swings, increased morbidity and mortality rates, as well as declines in cognitive and physical performance.

The intervention applied to this study could help workers’ performance.

“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,” said Dr. Andrew Bagshaw from the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain.

In this study, participants had an average bedtime of 2:30am and wake-up time of 10:15am. For a period of three weeks 22 participants in the experimental group were asked to wake up 2-3 hours before regular wake up time and maximise outdoor light during the mornings, go to bed 2-3 hours before habitual bedtime and limit light exposure in the evening, keep sleep/wake times fixed on both work days and free days, and have breakfast as soon as possible after waking up, eat lunch at the same time every day, and refrain from eating dinner after 7 in the evening.

The experiments resulted in an increase in cognitive and physical performance during the morning when tiredness is often very high among night owls, as well as a shift in peak performance times from evening to afternoon. It also led to better mental well-being, with participants reporting a decrease in feelings of stress and depression.

“Establishing simple routines could help night owls adjust their body clocks and improve their overall physical and mental health. Insufficient levels of sleep and circadian misalignment can disrupt many bodily processes putting us at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes,” said Professor Debra Skene from the University of Surrey.

Dr. Facer-Childs 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.”

The study has been published in Sleep Medicine.

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