According to a new study, night owls are at greater risk of mental health issues than larks.
Researchers at the University of Exeter have uncovered a causal link between having an evening chronotype (i.e. being a night owl) and being at increased risk of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.
If you are a night owl, you can at least comfort yourself with the proof that it’s not just laziness – it really is genetic.
The researchers studied the genomes of 697,828 participants signed up to UK Biobank and 23andMe and identified two distinct groups of genes linked with being a ‘morning’ or ‘evening’ person.
To confirm their findings, they equipped 85,000 UK Biobank participants with activity trackers in order to monitor their sleeping patterns.
Those with the most ‘evening’ genes woke up 25 minutes later, on average, than those with the most ‘morning’ genes. Evening people were 10% more likely to develop schizophrenia, and more likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety. However, being a night owl didn’t increase the risk of obesity or type 2 diabetes.
So what’s the reason behind it all? Scientists think that having to work against their natural body clock at school and work might cause mental health issues for night owls because it has a negative impact on their state of mind, and because they are less likely to get enough quality sleep.
‘Larks’ or morning people typically wake up by 6am feeling bright and alert and are able to fall asleep by 9pm. Night owls often need to sleep until 11am to wake up feeling refreshed, and struggle to fall asleep before midnight – awkward if you’re expected to work a standard 9-5 day. About 10% of people fall into the lark category, while 20% qualify as night owls. The rest of us fall somewhere in between.
Sleeping for less than 6 hours a night has also been linked with an increased risk of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, while a new study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital suggests that sleep deprivation causes inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been linked with depression, as well as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
So how can night owls future-proof their mental and physical health? You can’t change your natural chronotype but you can ‘advance’ your body clock to a certain extent.
Try sleeping with your bedroom curtains open so that you wake up to daylight, or use a daylight alarm clock. Then book out the weekend for a camping trip – research suggests the natural light exposure can alter your body’s circadian rhythm, making you more of a morning person.