Early Birds May Have A Lower Risk Of Depression, Study Finds

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

We've all heard that the early bird gets the worm, but there actually might be some real benefits to waking up early — some that go far beyond gross, crawling, squiggling things that live in the ground. In fact, it may mean really good news for your mental health. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Channing Division of Network Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that those who were naturally early birds — early to bed, early to rise — were less likely to develop depression than natural night owls.

The study, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, asked 32,000 female nurses, particularly women at middle-to-older age, about their chronotype, which is basically just your sleep-wake time preferences. At the beginning of the study, all of the women were depression-free, but researchers followed them for four years to see what changed. Even controlling for other factors like marital status, light exposure, and whether or not they smoked, the researchers found that early risers had a 12 to 27 percent lower risk of becoming depressed than those with intermediate type sleep patterns. They also found that late types had a six percent higher risk than intermediate types, but researchers noted that this was not a big enough shift to be particularly meaningful. But the difference between early risers and intermediate risers certainly was.

The fact that they looked at natural early risers might be a significant one. "It's a fascinating study — the challenge, however, is that it is unclear if shifting to an early morning rise is possible for everyone," Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show tells Bustle. "We all have our natural chronotypes and what is critical is that we retain our quality and quantity of sleep. So if this study shows benefits of being an early morning riser and you are not, it is worth it to make an effort to gradually shift your sleep patterns. But 'gradual' is the key. You don't want to sacrifice the amount or quality of sleep in an attempt to get up earlier." And not everyone can make the change easily. Your natural chronotype might be very stubborn.

How To Become An Early Riser

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

That being said, you may be able to make some small shifts if you want to be an earlier riser. "The key is to make shifts at each end of the sleep cycle," Klapow says. "That is getting up 30 minutes or so earlier each day AND going to bed earlier for the same amount of time. If you start gradually, it might even be 15 minutes on each end — and go for one to two weeks at each level (i.e. 15 minutes earlier to bed and rise for two weeks, then 30 minutes earlier, then 45) — you should be able to gradually shift your sleep cycle."

But if you really want it to happen, you're going to have to work at it. "Consistency is key, however," Klapow says. "If you revert back to your old ways on the weekends it will make this much harder. So, to the extent that you want to adopt the protective factors of being an early riser, start shifting now. Shift slow, and shift consistently and you should be able to move from being a night owl to an early riser. That being said — some people have a great challenge making a dramatic shift. If you are unable to shift more than an hour or two without having significant problems getting enough sleep then stay where you are at. Quality and quantity of sleep are likely more important than trying to shift and having poor sleep." So if you're truly a night owl and find it really difficult when you try to change that, then it might not be worth it — good sleep is more important.

You can't always help whether you're an early bird or late riser, but it seems like early birds can have some real advantages. If you want, you can experiment with pushing your sleeping pattern to earlier, but only if that works for you. If you're damaging your sleep, it's not worth it.