Sleep and society: why the deck is stacked against night owls

Those who struggle to fall asleep urged to embrace lifestyle that fits with their natural rhythm

A recent study set the internet ablaze with sensational headlines promising an early death for those with nontraditional sleep schedules.

It wasn’t the conclusion of the study, or its researchers. But in the bombastic world of science reporting, it didn’t really matter.

Originally published in the journal Chronobiology International, the study looked at the chronotypes — a means of classifying one’s predisposition for sleeping at certain hours — of more than 430,000 people during a six-and-a-half-year period.

Scouring data from the National Health Service in England and the NHS Central Register in Scotland, researchers sought to find out what, if any, negative health impacts awaited those with a night-owl schedule.

After sorting nearly half a million people into four groups — definite larks (larks are early birds, those most likely to rise with the sun), definite owls (those more likely to retire to bed with the sun than to wake with it), moderate larks and moderate owls — researchers reported some troubling findings.

More than 10,000 participants died during the study period.

Of those deaths, the bulk seemed to be the result of natural causes.

The study didn’t necessarily seek to link death with sleep deprivation, but rather to “comorbidity” — the occurrence in one person of two or more conditions, such as psychological or neurological disorders, diabetes and the like.

With each incremental shift toward a night-owl schedule, comorbidities became more common, increasing the risk of an early death.

But while saying that night owls are going to die early makes for an eye-catching headline, the real story isn’t quite that simple.

The story behind the study

It’s evident that owls’ nontraditional schedules put them at risk of significant health problems.

Nearly every study on this chronotype has returned troubling findings.

But Dr. Kristen Knutson, the lead author of the Chronobiology International study, warned against drawing conclusions based on simple correlation.

Knutson, an associate professor at Northwestern University who studies neurology and sleep medicine, told The Los Angeles Times that issues arise for night owls who try to live in a morning lark world, staying up late while adding to their sleep debt each morning.

Knutson’s study noted a number of other behaviors that could contribute to increased health risks, mostly relating to diet and exercise.

While 24-hour gyms exist, opportunities to take part in classes or athletics are practically unheard-of late at night and overnight.

Food options for those who eat while others are typically sleeping are often limited to fast food and greasy-spoon fare.

These factors suggest there is more to consider than just sleep.

None of the experts we spoke with suggested that people with owl schedules who get restful sleep each night, eat a healthy diet, exercise, form meaningful social connections and get some sunlight each day were at significant risk of an overall decline in their general health, or an early death, based solely on their sleep schedule.

Knutson acknowledged as much in the study’s conclusion.

Sleep habits are changing with time and technology

In the 1735 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

People at the time agreed, if mostly out of necessity.

Electricity was more than a century away and the jobs of the era were primarily in farming, ranching and manufacturing — all of which typically took place outdoors.

Owls of the period were seen as lazy and unmotivated, the types who frequented bars, brothels and jail cells, often sleeping late into the day.

At the time, societal views of owls revolved mostly around the notion that they were to be avoided at all costs, Stephen Innes wrote in his book “Creating the Commonwealth: The Economic Culture of Puritan New England.”

Two centuries passed and not much changed.

A 1942 Gallup poll reported that only 3 percent of Americans slept fewer than five hours a night, with most households averaging 7.9 hours.

Owls represented a statistical anomaly; they were outliers who weren’t, and perhaps still aren’t, well understood.

Franklin’s adage had become so ingrained that even the advent of electricity couldn’t keep Americans’ heads off their pillows each night. But that was about to change.

By 1954, more than half of American households owned at least one television set.

By the early ’90s, we’d reached the same milestone for the personal computer. And just a few years later, more than half the country was connected to the internet.

In 2013, Gallup revisited the poll.

This time, those sleeping fewer than five hours a night had ballooned to 14 percent.

On average, Americans were sleeping less than ever, just 6.8 hours a night.

Being a night owl isn’t all bad

Today, larks have a distinct advantage because they run on society’s schedule.

Owls, by contrast, abide only the laws of their own bodies.

Still, owls do have a few advantages.

Studies have found them to be smarter, more creative and more consistent in their work than larks.

One such study, in 2009, monitored larks and owls over two nights in a sleep lab.

Researchers at the University of Liège in Belgium let the participants choose their own sleep and wake times, and required them to take a test when they first woke up, and a second one 10 hours later.

On the first test, both groups performed roughly the same.

But on the second, owls significantly outperformed larks, suggesting they were better equipped to maintain a baseline level of mental performance throughout the day.

Another study of more than 20,000 adolescents and teenagers found that those who reported a later sleep schedule were more intelligent and creative, on average, than those who went to bed early.

The findings applied across a variety of demographic variables, including ethnicity, education and religion.

However, while the study was broad, it relied on self-reporting as opposed to objective observation.

It’s not you, it’s society

Dr. Katherine Sharkey, an associate professor of medicine at Brown University, believes that going against the body’s natural tendencies may be the real culprit behind the health issues some owls experience.

“An owl’s internal body clock prevents him or her from falling asleep early enough to get enough sleep before they must wake to meet their obligations,” she said in an email.

“I would speculate that if night owls were allowed to follow their preferred schedules, there would be fewer risks associated with being an owl.”

Dr. Daniel Gartenberg, a sleep coach who once gave a TED Talk on the benefits of deep sleep, agreed.

“In my opinion, the problem isn’t when you sleep, but the natural misalignment in the sleep schedule of those who work a 9-to-5 job,” he said.

For owls, this is a bit of a problem.

While their bodies might not be ready for sleep until the wee hours, society remains steadfast in its belief that earlier is better.

“It’s these societal pressures that contribute to a growing number of sleep-deprived individuals,” Gartenberg said.

In Seattle, one school district started class an hour later each day for a test group of students at two high schools to see if a later start time would be a solution for sleep deprivation among children.

Those who benefited from the extra hour slept an additional 34 minutes, on average. And while an extra half-hour might seem inconsequential, the additional rest led to a 4.5 percent increase in their median final classroom grades.

This, in most classrooms, constitutes half a letter grade: the difference between an A and a B or a passing grade and a failing one, in some cases.

The results were mirrored in a 2017 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It stated that only a quarter of high school-age children were sleeping the recommended eight hours each night, and that students could benefit from a few additional hours of shut-eye each night.

It’s not just students.

A 2013 survey of more than 2,000 working adults suggested that the autonomy to pick their own schedule increased employee output.

The survey, conducted by the research division of Gensler, an architecture and design firm, noted increased job satisfaction, higher productivity and a more favorable view of employers among workers who were allowed to pick when and where they worked each day.

Is it worth trying to force a night owl to be a morning lark?

If you’re a night owl, Sharkey believes you should try to shift to an earlier schedule only if it helps you get more sleep.

For some people, she notes, this adaptation is unreasonable “because they struggle to adapt to societal demands and experience negative consequences and feel unwell.”

While there are dozens of tricks to make a night owl more of a lark — avoiding screens at night, limiting caffeine intake, sleeping in a cooler space or cutting calories after a certain hour — few are likely to make much of a difference over the long term.

In a biological sense, you’re just fighting against yourself.

The ideal solution, according to our experts, is to find ways to embrace your natural rhythm, even if it means finding a more flexible job or taking night courses instead of morning ones.

Bryan Clark writes for The New York Times from San Diego. For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

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