Here's How 'Night Owls' Can Reset Their Sleep Clocks

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Over 3 weeks, researchers trained night owls to reset their sleep patterns; the results are pretty remarkable.

By the looks of it, you'd think night owls have all the fun. Many a night owl is just heading out around the same time I'm turning off my bedroom light. But given the demands of our societal schedule, those whose internal body clock dictates later-than-usual sleep and wake times actually get the short end of the stick.

As the authors of a new study point out, disturbances to the sleep/wake system come with some unfortunate outcomes, like mood swings, increased morbidity and mortality rates, and declines in cognitive and physical performance. Night owls, compared to morning birds, tend to struggle more with the typical work and school schedules that are out of sync with their sleep patterns.

"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," study co-author Dr Andrew Bagshaw from the University of Birmingham said.

So this international team of scientists set out to see if they could help late sleepers shift their circadian rhythms (the body's internal clock) using practical, non-pharmacological interventions. I always thought that these kinds of sleeping patterns were a bit more hard-wired, so here's the question:

Can late sleepers reset their circadian rhythms?

In a word, yes! Over a three week period, 22 participants in the study were able to bring forward their sleep/wake timings by two hours, while having no negative effect on how long the slept. And better yet, the former night owls reported less depression and stress, as well as decreases in daytime sleepiness.

"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," lead researcher Dr Elise Facer-Childs from Monash University's Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health said.

How night owls can reset their sleep clocks

The study's 22 healthy participants had an average bedtime of 2.30am and wake-up time of 10.15am – which as you can imagine might be tricky in our 9-to-5 world. For a three-week duration, the participants were asked to do the following things:

  • 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.
  • Have breakfast as soon as possible after waking up, eat lunch at the same time each day, and refrain from eating dinner after 7pm.
  • And it worked. The University of Birmingham notes that the results nightlighted an "increase in cognitive (reaction time) and physical (grip strength) performance during the morning," a time when night owls are typically their most sluggish. The night owls' peak performance time also shifted from evening to afternoon. They also started eating breakfast more, which the authors say led to better mental well-being; and participants reported a drop in feelings of stress and depression.

    "We wanted to see if there were simple things people could do at home to solve this issue. This was successful, on average allowing people to get to sleep and wake up around two hours earlier than they were before," said Bagshaw. "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."

    The study was published in Sleep Medicine, see more here.