I am a night owl living in an early morning world. I have two young children who demand breakfast at 6.30am. I have a school run, and then an early morning train to catch. When I arrive home after a busy day at work, I head straight into my second shift: helping with homework, doing bath time, reading bedtime stories and making dinner.
So you’d assume I’d collapse into bed at 10pm, with a good book, an eye mask and a cup of camomile tea close by? No way. Because I’ve been cursed with the night owl gene that sees me pottering about the house until gone midnight most nights.
Why? Because, like all night owls, I’m simply better at night. I’m more creative. I’m more productive and energised at 10pm, and enjoy pottering about the house, putting washing away and tidying up, as everybody else begins to wind down.
All of which means I go to bed at midnight most nights, before finally falling asleep at around 12.30am.
My husband, on the other hand, is one of those annoying larks, and springs happily out of bed at 6.30am to either go for a run or get a head start on the day, while I lie there dozing and working out how many more minutes I can get away with staying in bed for. He despairs of me, but I’ve always been rather proud of being a night owl: because while larks seem more virtuous, various studies show owls are more creative and intelligent, and have better love lives. As the British novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson once said: ‘There is a romance about all those who are abroad in the black hours.’
But far from being romantic, is my owl-ness damaging my health? It could be, according to a study out recently on breast cancer. So, why is being a night owl so bad for you?
It can increase your cancer risk
A recent study found women who go to bed late have almost double the risk of breast cancer than early-risers. Researchers funded by Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council (MRC) examined how sleeping habits affect our chances of developing cancer, and found that larks (who tend to go to bed earlier and have less trouble waking up) were 48 per cent less likely to develop cancer and 40 per cent less likely to get breast cancer.
The study echoes previous research that has found women who work night shifts are more likely to get breast cancer, which experts think is due to the disruption it causes to their circadian rhythm, our internal body clock that responds to light and dark and regulates our body’s physiological processes over a 24-hour period.
Of the research, Dr Rebecca Richmond, from the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol, says: ‘The findings of a protective effect of morning preference on breast cancer risk in our study are consistent with previous research highlighting a role for night-shift work and exposure to ‘light-at-night’ as risk factors for breast cancer. This is related to morning or evening preference rather than actually whether people get up earlier or later in the day. In other words, it may not be the case that changing your habits changes your risk of breast cancer.’
How to do it the night owl way: ‘While initial results from this large study found that women whose genes predisposed them to be early risers could have a reduced risk of breast cancer, the next step to understand how sleep may affect cancer risk would be to look at people’s sleep patterns and other factors that may be playing a role in when people wake up,’ says Katie Edmunds from Cancer Research UK. ‘So instead of trying to jump out of bed a little earlier in the mornings, the best ways to reduce the risk of breast cancer is by keeping a healthy weight and cutting back on alcohol.’
But, as an owl, you’re more likely to be overweight...
According to researchers at Loughborough University, larks tend to be slimmer than owls (a quick look at my husband can confirm there could be some truth to this). Because while the researchers found larks tend to eat breakfast within half an hour of waking up, owls tend to snack late in the evening (guilty!). In another study, the participants who described themselves as night owls consumed twice as many calories after 8pm than the larks.
Research also shows that a lack of sleep (something owls like me, forced to get up early, suffer from) can affect the hormones responsible for appetite and satiety. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University found getting fewer than six hours’ sleep causes levels of leptin, the hormone responsible for our sense of fullness, to drop. So when you’re tired, you tend to eat more but feel less full.
Another study, from Oxford University, found that even short-term sleep deprivation resulted in an increased carbohydrate consumption.
How to do it the night owl way: Just because you’re awake until midnight doesn’t mean you have to snack right up until bedtime, says dietitian Helen Bond. ‘Set yourself a snack cut-off point at, say, 8pm and brush your teeth earlier to help you stick to it. If you’re up late and craving sugary snacks, distract yourself by taking the dog for a late walk around the block, take a bath, phone a friend or do a chore that occupies your hands.’
It can lower your mood
While studies suggest owls tend to have more fun, there appears to be a pay-off: they’re more likely to become depressed. One recent study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that if they suffered depression to begin with, night owls experienced more severe symptoms, including greater anxiety, than larks.
Another study, published in the Journal Psychiatric Research, examined the data of 32,740 women who identified as either morning or evening types. Adjusting for factors such as marital status and alcohol consumption, morning people were 12 per cent less likely to suffer from depression, and those who stayed up later were 6 per cent more likely to develop it. The researchers also found a linear relationship: the later the woman went to bed, the more likely she was to suffer depression. ‘The effect is modest,’ says Prof Celine Vetter, lead author on the study. ‘But the overall pattern remains constant.’
How to do it the night owl way: While a quick WhatsApp catch-up is one thing, avoid browsing in the hours leading up to bed. Studies show looking at social media in the hour before bed leads to disturbed sleep and a recent study from the University of Copenhagen found people suffer from “Facebook envy” when they spend time looking at other people’s profiles in the evening.
A lighter life is a longer life
Researchers who monitored 500,000 Britons over six years found that people who stay up later and struggle to wake in the morning have a 10 per cent greater risk of premature death than larks, even when factors like overall health were accounted for. The researchers, from Northwestern University in Chicago, found that night owls have an increased risk of diabetes, mental health problems, neurological conditions, and that a preference of going to bed later is linked to stress, lack of exercise, drug use and disordered eating.
Dr Kristen Knutson, who worked on the study, said: ‘Night owls trying to live in a morning lark world may have health consequences for their bodies,’ before calling for companies to tweak working hours according to their employee’s sleeping habits.
How to do it the night owl way: Use light like coffee. The researchers found that while genetics determine whether somebody is a lark or owl, owls can become more lark with exposure to light early on in the day.
The Daily Telegraph