Is It Healthier to Be an Early Bird or a Night Owl?

Is It Healthier to Be an Early Bird or a Night Owl?
Photo Credit: nesharm / iStockPhoto.com
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Is It Better to Wake up Early?

Many of us have been taught that going to bed early and rising while the day is new will bring us good health, financial success, and even wisdom.

As someone who awakens slowly and has worked many night shifts, I decided to do some investigating in order to see whether it matters if we are night owls or early birds.

I knew night work presents health hazards and that some of us, my husband for example, wake up loud and raring to go while others, including myself, prefer to stay up late and savor a cup of tea or coffee in the morning while gradually coming to life.

My original intent was to write an article that showed the pros and cons of both sleeping habits. However, there is overwhelming evidence that early birds have the right idea, while we night owls need to take steps to rise and go to sleep a bit earlier if we want to stay healthy.

New Evidence Validates Ancient Wisdom

Ayurveda, the ancient science of life originated in India, has always taught that the body has a built-in clock and each area of body needs to perform its functions according to a pre-programmed cycle in order to function optimally.

Current research validates that the ancients were absolutely correct. For example, certain hormones (such as melatonin) are produced more at night than they are during the rest of the day. If a disruption in the sleep pattern occurs, hormone production is impaired and health problems may ensue.

In addition to aiding sleep, melatonin helps prevent breast cancer and other diseases. Experts have validated that night shift workers have higher rates of breast cancer; this may be partially due to disruption of melatonin production.

The Body’s Natural Rhythms Promote Health

The body’s innate 24-hour cycle is called its circadian rhythm. It is mainly influenced by light and darkness.

Each of us has a built-in clock within the brain that directs the circadian rhythm of our bodies. The clock turns the body processes, such as hormone production, on and off depending upon exposure to light.

Sleep/rest patterns, brain activity, digestion, cellular regeneration, diabetes, obesity and emotional health are all driven by circadian rhythms. Other environmental factors affect these processes too, however light is the primary trigger that drives the internal clock.

Disruption of the body’s natural circadian rhythm stresses every organ, tissue and cell of the body. Therefore it is essential to restore the body’s natural circadian rhythm cycle in order to be and stay well. This takes time and consistent effort.

Causes of Sleep Cycle Disruption

Some of us have been night owls for along as we can remember. Others of us have become night owls due to habit, illness or necessity. If you are a night owl, you may be suffering from a sleep disorder without realizing it.

Being pregnant or waking up frequently with a new baby can create a new habit of being awake at night and feeling exhausted by day. Night shift workers and people who travel frequently into different time zones often suffer from sleep disturbances.

Medications may alter the circadian rhythm. Specific health challenges, including depression, chronic pain, emotional disorders, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, aging and blindness, may negatively impact sleep cycles.

How Are Circadian Rhythm Disorders Diagnosed?

If you think you may have a sleep disorder, notify your health care provider. Get a complete physical examination and request a referral to a sleep specialist.

The sleep specialist will obtain a comprehensive history from you. You will likely be asked to keep a sleep journal for a couple of weeks, and you may be asked to wear a wristwatch-like device for one to two weeks to record your sleep/activity cycles.

Types of Sleep Disorders

Let’s take a look at some of the most common circadian rhythm disorders and see what you can do to alleviate them.

  • Delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS)
  • Advanced sleep phase disorder (ASPD)
  • Rapid time zone change syndrome (jet lag)
  • Shift work sleep disorder

DSPS

DSPS occurs in children, adolescents and adults, and is believed to result from changes within the length of the circadian rhythm, as well as alterations in melatonin levels. Less exposure to early morning light and more late-day light helps perpetuate this altered cycle.

DSPS rates increase among individuals who suffer from depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. People who suffer from DSPS often cannot fall asleep before 2 a.m.; they can’t wake up in the morning and sleep late.

This condition is treated by behavioral modification, practicing healthy sleep hygiene habits, medications, melatonin administration, scheduled times to go to bed and arise, and bright light therapy. Sleep and wake times are gradually changed every two days until a healthy bedtime and arising time is obtained.

Individuals who suffer from DSPS often have difficulty adhering to treatment because they must carefully stick with schedules for rest, arising and bright light exposure.

Treatment for Other Circadian Rhythm Disorders

While specific treatments are based upon individual needs and the type of sleep disturbance, all rely on creating a restful night environment and exposure to light and darkness. Medications and melatonin supplementation may be useful as well.

Calcium, magnesium, and herbal remedies including passionflower, valerian and hops, may be effective or some people. It can be very challenging to correct circadian rhythm disorders because most people have experienced them for years.

It is hard to change from being a night owl to an early bird and it may not seem to be worth the effort at times. This is particularly true in the beginning, because you may not immediately see positive changes — in fact you may actually feel worse. But perseverance is important — ultimately you will be rewarded with enhanced energy levels, better sleep quality and improved health.