The night owls among you are probably already aware of some downsides to your preferred sleep schedule: most notably, the standard 9 to 5 schedule becomes a bit more painful when you didn’t go to sleep until 3.
But that isn’t where the problems end. Ever wondered if being a night owl is bad for you, beyond the added caffeine consumption it takes to get through the work week? According to a new review of studies, your sleeping habits could have a very real impact on your health, by increasing your risk of conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
But making a few simple changes can help keep your late-night lifestyle from sending your health to the birds.
A new study looked at the negative health impacts of being a night owl, particularly by examining what they’re eating while awake during the extremely early hours of the day. If all of the following won’t make you change your habits, then read a bit about a previous study that found a link between going to bed really late and early death.
The study, recently published in Advances in Nutrition, looked at available research and asked the question: Does the time you go to bed have any effects on your overall health? The short answer, according to the study authors, is yes it does.
The researchers focused on what’s known as a person’s chronotype. Your chronotype (or individual sleep pattern) is more commonly referred to as your circadian rhythm, or your sleep-wake cycles in relationship to the setting and rising of the sun.
The researchers examined already existing research that focused on the health habits of daytime versus nighttime people.
These findings showed that people who lead a nighttime life typically eat fewer fruits and vegetables and consume more “energy drinks, alcoholic, sugary, and caffeinated beverages, as well as higher energy intake from fat.”
“Glucose levels should naturally decline throughout the day and reach their lowest point at night,” the review explains. But people with an evening preference typically eat later, often right before going to bed. The result? Their glucose levels increase when they’re supposed to be at their lowest. “This could negatively affect metabolism as their body isn’t following its normal biological process,” the researchers suggest.
While the research definitely provides some food for thought, it doesn’t suggest that there is actually a cause-and-effect relationship between staying up late and eating poorly.
Things aren’t that simple and several other factors come into play.
The life and diet of a night owl
Those “night owl” hours are also when grocery stores and healthier restaurants that offer food delivery are typically closed.
That often leaves only corner stores and fast-food restaurants as the last bastion of sustenance, which will inevitably offer worse food options: those higher in sugar, salt, and fat.
Some experts, like Samantha Morrison, a health and wellness expert for Glacier Wellness, argue that eating fatty and sugary foods late in the day require long digestion periods, which can cause unwanted weight gains, indigestion, and even increase the chances of having a stroke.
Although several workforce categories see themselves forced to live most of their life in this night owl “shift”, leading a healthy lifestyle is still a choice, even if odds seem against them.
But why is being a night owl so damaging for your health?
Dr. Steven Zodkoy, director of Monmouth Advanced Medicine and author of Misdiagnosed: The Adrenal Fatigue Link, says the biggest reason night owls exist is an abnormal cortisol rhythm.
He says most people have higher levels of the hormone cortisol in the morning, but, chronically stressed people get that peak later in the day. This makes night owls typically have a shift in the normal pattern.
Basically, the later the brain fully wakes up, the later it’s ready to settle down for the night, which eventually can lead to poor sleep, fatigue, burnout, weight gain, anxiety, and other symptoms of “Type-A personality” traits.
Also, dr. Sujay Kansagra, Mattress Firm’s sleep health expert, says a variety of studies suggest night owls tend to do worse on a variety of measures, including school performance, self-regulation, risk-taking, and risk of mood disturbance.
Unfortunately, researchers don’t have a full grasp on why their could be a correlation between being a night owl and having health issues. It could be that being awake at night offers greater opportunity to consume alcohol and drugs. For some, being awake when everyone else is sleeping may lead to feelings of loneliness and increased risk of depression. It could also be related to our biological clocks.
He said the new research adds “another interesting dimension” to circadian science, some of which can likely be explained by the dietary choices for night owls.
How to counteract the negative effects of sleeping late?
The best thing you can do to avoid making hasty culinary decisions – especially if it’s late in the night and you happen to be a little bit tipsy – is to plan ahead. That means going out to the grocery store during those daylight hours when everyone else might be there and stocking up on healthy snacks.
Baby carrots, rotisserie chickens, bananas, bagged salads, low-salt nuts, reduced-fat cheeses, whole grain crackers and bread can satisfy a lot of those late-night good mouthfeel snacks without adding unnecessary calories.
And, if you’re hankering for one more beer before bed, no, we don’t have any good news on that. Our advice is to try switching it to some bubbly water. Your brain gets the same refreshing feeling of cracking one last cold one with none of the alcohol.
To help minimize those effects, Zodky and others recommend exercise, relaxation, and other lifestyle changes. That includes the focus on food from the chronotype study.
Besides long-term preventable health effects, the cliché lifestyles of the night owl could have an immediate effect on your finances because you could end up making some poor mistakes.
But once the shift is over and it’s finally time to go to bed, people who could be considered a night owl — whether by choice, diet, or profession — can also make some simple changes to get better sleep.
Bill Fish, co-founder of Tuck.com, says the human circadian rhythm has evolved over millennium, but it changed when Thomas Edison invented the light bulb back in 1879.
“Until that time, humans woke up with the rise of the sun to either hunt or tend to the fields,” he told Healthline. “We then rested when it became dark.”
So, while you’re fighting eons of evolution and sleeping during the day, Fish recommends creating “a sleep sanctuary” with shades that blackout windows and a white noise machine to ensure you are allowing your body to naturally rest properly.
Other than that, it’s important to be mindful of what your body is trying to tell you.
“Monitor your diet to ensure you are consuming three quality meals per day,” Fish said, “and continue to do everything possible to monitor your health.”