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If you're a night owl, you probably look at morning people with amazement. It can seem impossible to not only wake up early — but actually be happy about it. The good news is, you're not doomed forever. If you're a notorious night owl who could really benefit from a morning person lifestyle, you may be able to change your routine easier than you think. Mind over matter, right?
Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. found that staying up late and sleeping late could be leaving you feeling like a jet-lagged globe-trotter all day. People “with a late sleep-wake preference” (we’re looking at you, college students) wake with a decrease in cognitive function, no matter how many hours they actually snooze. This sleep pattern affected attention, reaction time and overall sleepiness.
The May 2019 findings, published in the journal, SLEEP, revealed not only that staying up late has negative effects on cognition — but also that “larks,” or people who like going to bed and waking up early, enjoy psychological and health benefits. The problem may not be with the sleepers themselves, but rather, with the world they live in. Because the traditional day — say, a 9-to-5 work schedule — requires a sleep/wake rhythm that means getting up early in the morning and functioning right away, night owls are automatically at a disadvantage. Their “circadian phenotype,” or internal clock, is at odds with the social constraints of their jobs and lives.
What to do, then, if you just can’t give up your late-night TV and midnight Instagram scrolling? According to additional research, also published in SLEEP, there’s a fix — and it’s an easy one: move your sleep/wake time forward by two hours.
Twenty-two healthy participants in their 20s shifted their sleep for three weeks for a study commissioned by scientists in the U.K. and Australia. They logged their habits and wore sleep trackers as a baseline for two weeks prior to starting. Once they did, these were the rules:
- Wake up 2-3 hours earlier than your regular time.
- Expose yourself to as much light as possible in the morning.
- Go to bed 2-3 hours earlier than usual, and limit exposure to light at night.
- Keep this pattern during the work week as well as on weekends.
- Eat breakfast as soon as possible after waking, eat lunch at the same time every day, and finish dinner by 7 p.m.
The result? The night owls had better cognition and physical performance (measured by grip strength, which can be hindered by poor sleep) in the morning, when they were usually tired. Their peak performance also shifted, from evening to afternoon. And, like your mother always told you, the simple act of eating breakfast (a habit that was instilled by the requirements of the study) improved mental well-being, resulting in less stress and less reported depression.
Early risers and night owls alike can improve their sleep in other ways, too: Lay off coffee, especially late in the day, don’t try to fall asleep on a full stomach and try to leave your stress and to-do-list behind when your head hits the pillow. Keep your bedroom temperature at 65 degrees if you can, as that ideal temperature allows your body to cool faster, maximizing sleep time. Make sure your bedroom is a place for sleep, not work, Netflix or exercise, so your body and mind associate your bed with slumber.
And most importantly, power down your devices. The light from your screen signals to your brain that it’s daytime. Plus, there’s nothing like a rousing Twitter debate to keep you up at night. Nothing’s worth the after-effects of a bad night’s sleep, so make it a priority, and rest well.