by: Dr. Craig A. Maxwell
Are you a night owl? Do you relish the quiet of the evening and dread the ear-splitting buzz of the alarm clock come sunup? Night owls often get a bad rap for being lazy, depressed, and anti-social. The truth is, those who prefer the evening hours are often more creatively intelligent, outgoing, and have better school grades. The downside to this is they’re also more prone to certain health problems.
Night Owls Aren’t Lazy, Their Brains are Wired Differently
You’re not the only one who thinks the nighttime is the right time. ¼ of people worldwide are genetic night owls. It just depends on your chronotype: the individual disposition your brain has toward the daily timing of periods of wakefulness and rest. As a matter of fact, if you’re a genetic night owl, forcing yourself to get up earlier may result in a type of chronic jet lag where you always feel sleep-deprived.
Research has found evidence of physical differences in the white matter of the brains of different chronotypes. White matter is the fatty tissue of the brain responsible for neural communication. According to a German study, night owls show a reduced integrity in this white matter, which has been linked to disruption in cognitive function and a tendency toward depression.
Evening Types May be Smarter and More Creative
This doesn’t mean, however, that night owls are any less intelligent than their early bird counterparts. It just may mean that they are intelligent in a different way. For example, evening types are often the poets, artists, writers, and inventors. They are often what is referred to as a “right-brained type” or creative type.
Also, scientific tests have revealed that evening types scored higher than morning types in tests which measured inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is the ability to take general information and make specific conclusions and apply them to similar facts and experiences. Strength in this skill is often a good estimate of overall success in academic performance.
Furthermore, this inductive reasoning is often connected to the type of innovative thinking that makes for prestigious occupations (inventor, writer, singer, artist, actor, entrepreneur) linked to higher incomes.
Health Risks of Owning the Night
Despite the fact night owls may be more creative and perhaps even wealthier than early birds, there are some health risks of burning the midnight oil.
According to a study published in Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, night owls are almost three times as likely to suffer from depression than those who prefer the morning. This might be large-in-part due to lack of adequate sunlight and nurturing vitamin D3. It may also have to do with feeling out of sync with the general population and feeling like you always have to “catch up.” Plus, it doesn’t help that being an evening type has an unspoken social stigma associated with laziness.
Obesity is another health risk for those who prefer the evening hours. When you get up later in the day, you tend to eat larger meals much later in the day. Digestion and metabolism is highest during mid-day so if you’re eating your largest meals at say, 10PM, you may be more apt to pack on the pounds. Furthermore, if you are chronically sleep-deprived, you will have lower levels of a hormone called leptin, which triggers your brain to know when your stomach has had its fill of food.
- Heart Disease
If you have a later chronotype but your career requires you to get up at the crack of dawn, you may suffer from chronic sleep deprivation. This can lead to elevated levels in a stress hormone called cortisol, which increases the stress on your heart.
How to Be a Healthy Night Owl
Just because you prefer the dark of night to the light of day doesn’t mean you’re doomed to be depressed, obese, and sick. You can be a healthy night owl but it takes a bit of work.
Follow these tips:
1. Sleep on a Consistent Schedule
Whether it’s 1am to 9am or 4am to 12pm, always sleep on a consistent schedule. Flip-flopping between wake times can further disrupt and confuse your circadian rhythm, which may create hormone imbalances that trigger chronic disease. If you sleep in the morning, use blackout curtains and/or a sleep mask to be sure you’re in total darkness. Total darkness encourages the production of melatonin, an essential sleep hormone. You may also want to invest in ear plugs to block out everyday household noises until you’re ready to start your day.
2. Get Plenty of Natural Sunlight
Once you rise in the morning (or afternoon) be sure to get plenty of natural sunlight. Sit by a window turned toward the sun or, better yet, take a walk outside for half an hour to an hour to soak up as much natural vitamin D3 as possible. This can help stave off depression and hormonal imbalances that may cause you to overeat.
3. Eat a Healthy Diet
Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, you should always eat nutrient-dense food for optimum health. Night owls need to focus on this even more. Hormonal imbalances and nutritional deficiencies can be kept at bay by laying off the junk food and loading up on organic vegetables, fruit, beans, legumes, meat, poultry, fish, and healthy fats like coconut oil and avocado. These foods keep your immune system strong and flood your body with the nutrition you need to prevent the development of chronic disease.
4. Exercise Regularly
Stay healthy and prevent obesity and heart disease by getting plenty of exercise. If you can get this exercise outside, all the better. Walking, swimming, and hiking are great for your cardiovascular system while soaking up that precious vitamin D3.
5. Avoid Substance Abuse
Those who prefer the nighttime are often at increased risk for alcohol and illicit substance abuse. One alcoholic drink a day can actually improve your health but going beyond that can do harm.
6. Take a Vitamin D3 Supplement
Vitamin D3 deficiency is one of the most common health problems associated with night owls (although the epidemic extends to any chronotype). If you’re not getting enough natural sunlight and you’re not absorbing this necessary nutrient from food, a vitamin D supplement is essential. Without adequate levels of vitamin D3, you’re at increased risk for depression, autoimmune disease, heart disease, and cancer. For my patients with vitamin D3 deficiency, I recommend 2,000-5,000 I.U.s each day to keep levels optimum.
7. Find a Career That Suits Your Clock
Working a 9-5 office job may not be the best idea for those with a nighttime chronotype. As a matter of fact, it might do more harm than good. If you’re able, choose a job that falls more in line with your natural circadian rhythm. Working as a hotel clerk, a nurse, a retail clerk, a stocker, an artist, and an entrepreneur can help allow you to get the most out of life without having to yawn through your day until you hit your stride.
Sometimes, the only thing a night owl can do is embrace his or her nature. The one who takes on the world while the rest of it is asleep. While it could possibly but you at increased risk for certain health disorders, taking the precautions mentioned above can help you burn the midnight oil the way you were designed for decades to come.