'Night owls' can change into early risers within a few weeks, study finds

Simple tweaks to the sleeping patterns of those who are habitually late to bed could make them less stressed and depressed, according to a study.

As well as suffering poorer mental wellbeing, “night owls ” can often struggle to fit into typical work and school schedules that are out of sync with their preferred sleep patterns.

But researchers have now found it is possible for those whose internal body clocks dictate later-than-usual sleep and wake times to retrain them within just three weeks.

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A study involving 22 night owls, whose average bedtime was 2.30am with a wake-up time 10.15am, found the benefits of consistently getting an early night included feeling less stressed and depressed, as well as less sleepy during the day.

For a period of three weeks, they were asked to bring their sleep and wake times forward by two or three hours, keeping the timings fixed on working days and days off.

They were also told to get plenty of sunshine in the mornings, to eat breakfast soon after waking up, to eat lunch at the same time every day and to eat dinner no later than 7pm.

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The findings of the research, by the universities of Birmingham and Surrey, and Monash University in Australia, was published in the journal Sleep Medicine .

The results showed an increase in cognitive (reaction time) and physical (grip strength) performance during the morning, while peak performance times shifted from evening to afternoon.

Co-author Dr Andrew Bagshaw, from the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health, said: “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.

“We wanted to see if there were simple things people could do at home to solve the 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.”

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Lead researcher Dr Elise Facer-Childs, from Monash University’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, added: “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.” Additional reporting by Press Association.