If you envy people who wake up with the Sun, but you can’t seem to get to bed until well after midnight, some new research might help change your habits. An intriguing (but small) study suggests that it’s possible to retrain yourself to go to sleep earlier in just three weeks, without any drugs or other drastic actions involved. Shifting to an earlier sleep schedule could keep your mind and body sharper in the mornings, as well as improve your mood.
So-called morning people might think that changing a late sleep habit is as simple as choosing to get into bed earlier. But there’s actually research suggesting that our sleep preferences are complicated, influenced by factors we have no control over, like genetics (to say nothing of our job demands). And given that chronically late or poor sleeping can have a serious impact on health, finding a way to reset the body clock of night owls is sorely needed.
For their experiment, researchers in the UK and Australia recruited a group of 22 healthy volunteers, all of whom described themselves as late sleepers. On average, their nights ended at 2:30 am, and they would wake up at 10:15 am. For three weeks, half of the volunteers were asked to try going to bed two to three hours earlier than usual, and also wake up two to three hours earlier. The remaining volunteers acted as a control group.
The scientists gave their volunteers some relatively easy-to-follow tips to improve their sleep hygiene. They were to avoid light exposure at night and get as much sunlight as possible in the morning. For meals, they were to eat breakfast right after waking, eat lunch at the same time every day, and avoid dinner after 7 p.m. If they exercised, they were to do so in the morning rather than the afternoon or evening. And they were to avoid caffeine after 3 p.m.
By the end of the study, the experimental group had slept two hours earlier on average, based on readings from the activity trackers they wore. An analysis of hormone levels crucial to our sleep/wake cycle, namely melatonin and cortisol, also showed a change in the timing of their sleep cycle. They still got as much overall sleep as before, and there were some noticeable health benefits. It was easier for them to shake off the daze we often experience upon waking up—their average grip strength, a sign of physical fitness, and their reaction time on a cognitive test improved in the morning. They also self-reported feeling less stressed, depressed, and sleepy.
The study’s findings were published this May in Sleep Medicine.
“Our research findings highlight the ability of a simple non-pharmacological intervention to phase advance ‘night owls’, reduce negative elements of mental health and sleepiness, as well as manipulate peak performance times in the real world,” lead author Elise Facer-Childs, a sleep researcher at Monash University’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health in Australia, said in a release from the University of Birmingham in the UK. (Facer-Childs conducted the study during her time at Birmingham as a PhD student and later research fellow.)
While these sorts of experimental trials are considered the most direct kind of evidence for proving something, the small sample size does mean we should take the findings with a grain of salt. And some people, like those who work late-night shifts, might not be able to try out these interventions even if they wanted to. But given the relative ease and low risk of these lifestyle changes, they’re probably worth a try for night owls or chronic insomniacs.
“Establishing simple routines could help ‘night owls’ adjust their body clocks and improve their overall physical and mental health,” co-author Debra Skene from the University of Surrey said in the same release. “Insufficient levels of sleep and circadian misalignment can disrupt many bodily processes putting us at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.”