Growing up they called me “the one who puts herself to bed.” My habit of quietly slipping off to crawl under the covers was legendary.
I was a morning person born into a family of night owls.
I always had a nagging fear that I was missing out on the “good stuff” by being an early bird. And if you were to judge it by the junk food wrappers and dishes in the sink, I was right. They were clearly living it up while I slept.
But it turns out my early bird ways may have saved me from suffering a heart attack or receiving a type 2 diabetes diagnosis.
Researchers at Northumbria University took a deeper dive into data comparing early risers to late night folks. And their study confirmed there’s a growing stack of evidence that burning the midnight oil can take a big toll on our health.
Night owl or early bird? You’re BORN with it
As you know, each of us has a sort of internal clock which helps regulate many of the things we do throughout the day. Scientists call this natural pattern our circadian rhythm. And this 24-hour cycle is what informs us when to do certain things such as eat, go to sleep, and wake up.
Experts say our fondness for getting up earlier or staying up later is a natural preference. In other words, we’re born with it. Although it can shift in many people throughout their lifetimes.
Late nights send diabetes risk rocketing
It turns out natural night owls are at a higher risk for heart and blood sugar problems. In fact, one study found folks with an evening preference were 2.5 times more likely to have type 2 diabetes than those of us with a morning preference.
But it’s probably not for the reasons you might imagine. Because much of the rise in risk comes down to diet… what, when, and how they eat.
The research revealed that folks who turn in later tend to have unhealthier eating habits. They eat more fast food, sugar, and alcohol than morning folks do. And night owls don’t eat as many fruits, grains, and veggies as early birds, either.
WHEN and HOW you eat can mess with metabolism
However, it’s not WHAT night owls eat alone that puts them at a higher risk for ill health. It’s also, WHEN and HOW they eat.
People who go to bed later usually have a less consistent eating schedule. They often miss breakfast. Meals tend to be eaten later. And frequently night owls do more snacking as they’re forced to refuel to stay up far into the night.
But going against the grain of your internal clock can have consequences.
Typically, our circadian rhythm prompts us to eat meals at times that allow our blood sugar levels to naturally decline throughout the day. So by the time we hit the hay, they’re at their lowest point.
But since night owls eat closer to bedtime, their glucose levels are often higher when they go to sleep. And that can mess with metabolism, reduce insulin sensitivity, and affect glucose tolerance.
Which, of course, can eventually send your risks for heart disease and type 2 diabetes soaring.
Shift your schedule to SLASH your risk
Now, needless to say, if you’re a natural night owl you don’t INTEND to put yourself at risk for getting sick. And you’re probably wondering what you’re supposed to do about it since you were born with your preference.
Well, remember I mentioned earlier that our preference could shift throughout our lifetime. And it turns out you can use that adaptability to your advantage by gently coaxing yourself into a new pattern.
Starting tonight, your new goal should be to shift your schedule forward…
- Start by eating dinner earlier… say between 5:30 and 6:30 PM.
- After dinner, commit to no snacking. If you have a hard time making it all the way through to bedtime without eating, choose a healthy, high-protein snack such as a small fistful of almonds or a little scoop of cottage cheese.
- Next begin preparing for sleep at least an hour before bed by switching off electronics, dimming (or turning off) bright lights, and picking a quiet wind-down activity such as reading a book or working on a puzzle.
- Then head to bed at a reasonably early hour, such as 10:00 PM, that will allow you to get a full seven to eight hours of sleep. Pull the shades to block out any disturbing light and make sure all electronics are off and stashed away.
- If you’re having trouble slipping off to sleep at your new bedtime, taking a supplement for the first few days could help. Ones to consider include melatonin, chamomile, kava, or valerian.
If you’re a natural night owl, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to heart and blood sugar problems. Reduce your risk by adopting some healthier early bird habits instead.