Do you jump up at the crack of dawn to seize the day, or do you find yourself with a bundle of energy long into the evening hours? Many of us are self-proclaimed morning birds, night owls, or rest somewhere in the middle based on our personal preferences, energy levels, genetics, and even work schedules.
A recent study, published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine, suggests early birds may not only catch the worm but have healthier lifestyle habits and a lower risk for diabetes.
“Our findings underline the distinct health risks that night owls face, particularly concerning diabetes, and why lifestyle habits play a significant role,” Sina Kianersi, Ph.D., lead author on the study and research fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, tells Fortune.
Night owls—referred to in the study as those with a “definite evening chronotype,” who feel more energetic at night and tend to go to bed later—were 54% more likely to engage in unhealthy lifestyle habits measured by diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol intake, and sleep habits.
“Night owls were consistently found to have patterns of smoking, excessive drinking, not getting enough sleep or exercise…and a poor diet,” Kianersi says. “This is this consistent pattern that we see with suggested results that are not just by chance or coincidence.”
Night owls’ harmful health habits
Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School examined the health outcomes, lifestyle habits, and chronotypes of over 63,000 nurses from age 45 to 62 over about eight years starting in 2009. They had no previous health issues at the beginning of the study.
According to the study, night owls have a 72% increased risk of developing diabetes. The increased risk was also more pronounced in night owls who were not night shift workers. The authors explain that BMI, physical activity levels, and diet significantly contributed to the relationship between night owls and diabetes risk.
“Much of the increased risk that we saw in night owls for diabetes was because of their unhealthy habits,” Kianersi says.
However, 19% of the risk is likely attributed to genetics, metabolism, and other biological mechanisms, Kianersi says, but more research needs to be done here. One study published last year suggests night owls may be more insulin-resistant.
“These findings have public health implications…We can promote and develop targeted health interventions and targeted public health messaging,” Kianersi says.
While trying to become a morning bird may be extremely difficult and take the help of a doctor, Kianersi says there are other ways to combat the health consequences of the night owl.
This means sleeping between seven and nine hours each night, eating a healthy diet, moving during the week, and not binge drinking.
“For the night owls, that is particularly important,” Kianersi says. Going to bed before midnight also ensures you get optimal deep sleep, Dr. Abhinav Singh, medical director, Indiana Sleep Center, expert at SleepFoundation.org, and coauthor of Sleep to Heal: 7 Simple Steps to Better Sleep, previously told Fortune.
It’s important to note that the study’s limitation lies in the sample size, which consisted of predominantly middle-aged white females with higher socioeconomic statuses.
“We need to be cautious when generalizing our findings,” Kianersi says. “We need to conduct more studies among populations that are representative of their segments of our general population.”
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