Can’t get to sleep until late? You may be able to retrain your body clock

New research by the Universities of Birmingham and Surrey and Monash University in Australia show that people with extreme late sleeping and waking habits could retrain their body clocks.

Researchers have shown that it is possible to change the circadian rhythm of people whose internal body clock dictates later-than-usual sleep and wake times, using non-pharmacological and practical interventions, in their study over a three-week period. The changes could lead to improved performance in the mornings, better eating habits and decreased stress and depression.

The study, published in Sleep Medicine, showed participants were able to bring forward their sleep/wake timings by two hours, while having no negative effect on sleep duration. In addition, participants reported a decrease in feelings of depression and stress, as well as in daytime sleepiness.

The 22 participants in the study had an average bedtime of 2:30 a.m. and wake-up time of 10:15 a.m. The negative aspects of sleep patterns of night owls - aside from making the typical office job schedule less than ideal - also can cause adverse health issues including mood swings, increased morbidity and mortality rates, and declines in cognitive and physical performance.

“Having a late sleep pattern puts you at odds with the standard societal days, which can lead to a range of adverse outcomes – from daytime sleepiness to poorer mental wellbeing,” says study co-author Dr Andrew Bagshaw from the University of Birmingham's Centre for Human Brain Health.

“We wanted to see if there were simple things people could do at home to solve this issue. This was successful, on average allowing people to get to sleep and wake up around two hours earlier than they were before. Most interestingly, this was also associated with improvements in mental wellbeing and perceived sleepiness, meaning that it was a very positive outcome for the participants. We now need to understand how habitual sleep patterns are related to the brain, how this links with mental wellbeing and whether the interventions lead to long-term changes.”

The results highlighted an increase in cognitive and physical performance during the morning - when tiredness is often very high in ‘night owls’ - as well as a shift in peak performance times from evening to afternoon, according to the report, released by the University of Birmingham. It also increased the number of days in which breakfast was consumed and led to better mental wellbeing, with participants reporting a decrease in feelings of stress and depression.

“Establishing simple routines could help ‘night owls’ adjust their body clocks and improve their overall physical and mental health. Insufficient levels of sleep and circadian misalignment can disrupt many bodily processes putting us at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes,” Professor Debra Skene from the University of Surrey said.

So, if you’re struggling with sleep, why not give some actions from the study a go? Researchers asked people to do the following:

  • Wake up 2-3 hours before regular wake-up time and maximise outdoor light during the mornings.
  • Go to bed 2-3 hours before habitual bedtime and limit light exposure in the evening.
  • Keep sleep/wake times fixed on both work days and free days.
  • Have breakfast as soon as possible after waking up, eat lunch at the same time each day, and refrain from eating dinner after 7 pm.

These methods may help you get your sleep back on track - or at least help get you closer to a preferred sleep pattern. Maybe you’re up late for other reasons? Read more on getting a good night’s rest here:

How to beat back to work anxiety

Five apps for a better night’s sleep

Science-backed methods to get you to sleep in minutes

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash