If You’re A Night Owl, You Might Be Vulnerable To This Scary Health Risk

by James Hale

Bad news, fellow night owls: If you've ever wondered whether it's bad to stay up late, a new study out of Northwestern Medicine and the University of Surrey has shown that those of us who like to spread our wings (and work, and read, and marathon Netflix) at night have a higher risk of dying sooner than our crack-of-dawn counterparts, Northwestern University said in a press release April 12. The full study will be published in the journal Chronobiology International.

The study's findings revealed night owls have a 10 percent higher risk of dying than early birds. And not only that, but we have a harder time adjusting when daylight savings time rolls around, and we suffer from more diseases and disorders than those of us who sleep and rise early, including having higher rates of diabetes, psychological disorders, and neurological disorders, the study found.

Kristen Knutson, associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and co-lead author of the study, said in the press release that those of us who are more suited for nighttime activity run into health issues when we're forced to live "in a morning lark world."

In fact, part of the study's overall recommendations for helping night owls lower these health risks involves urging employers to allow "greater flexibility in working hours," according to the press release. For folks like me, who get the majority of their productivity time in at night, going to bed at 4 a.m. only to rise at 7 a.m. for work takes a toll on us — and this study shows that toll is potentially physical.

Malcolm von Schantz, a professor of chronobiology at the University of Surrey, said in the study's press release, "This is a public health issue that can no longer be ignored. We should discuss allowing evening types to start and finish work later, where practical. And we need more research about how we can help evening types cope with the higher effort of keeping their body clock in syncrony with sun time."

According to WebMD, we all have our own unique circadian rhythm, and it's possible that folks who are night owls simply have a longer circadian rhythm that isn't in sync with most people's 24-hour rhythm, and therefore the 24-hour cycle by which most of the working world operates. Knutson mentioned this in the study press release, saying, "It could be that people who are up late have an internal biological clock that doesn't match their external environment."

She added, though, that she believes this difference in clock time can be caused by "psychological stress, eating at the wrong time for their body, not exercising enough, not sleeping enough, [...] maybe drug or alcohol use. There are a whole variety of unhealthy behaviors related to being up late in the dark by yourself."

WebMD says your unique circadian rhythm does shift over your lifetime, according to Dr. Katherine Sharkey, assistant professor of internal medicine and psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and associate director of the Sleep for Science Research Lab. Sharkey told WebMD, "There's a developmental piece to this puzzle — school-age children are generally early birds, while teenagers tend to be night owls, and then as they age, adults gradually transition back into morning people."

Multiple studies, including one from the American Academy of Pediatrics that is cited by the Centers for Disease Control, have found evidence to support a shift to school days beginning later, in order to allow kids to sleep until a time that more closely aligns with natural adolescent circadian rhythms.

If you're a night owl who's stuck with an early bird's job, though, there are things you can do to mitigate the negative effects the situation could have on your body. "You're not doomed," Knutson said in the press release. "[There is potentially a genetic part] you don't have any control over and part of it you might."

Knutson advised making sure you get exposure to sunlight early in the morning, doing things earlier in the evening, and keeping a regular bedtime.

But it's also important that people realize not everyone can simply morph into an early bird, she added. "If we can recognize these chronotypes are, in part, genetically determined and not just a character flaw, jobs and work hours could have more flexibility for owls," Knutson explained. "They shouldn't be forced to get up for an 8 a.m. shift. Make work shifts match peoples' chronotypes. Some people may be better suited to night shifts."

Knutson explained that future research will involve testing "an intervention with [night] owls to get them to shift their body clocks to adapt to an earlier schedule." But until we have an easier way to help us shift our clocks, I know I, for one, will be over here sticking to my late-night hours of productivity.