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  • Posted May 31, 2024

Night Owls Could Be Upping Their Mental Health Risks

People who regularly stay up until the wee hours of the morning could be harming their mental health, a new study finds.

Regardless of whether people were morning larks or a night owls, they tended to have higher rates of mental and behavioral disorders if they stayed up late, researchers found.

The mental health risk associated with staying up late cropped up regardless of a person's preferred sleep timing, also known as their chronotype.

"We found that alignment with your chronotype is not crucial here, and that really it's being up late that is not good for your mental health,"said senior researcher Jamie Zeitzer, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford Medicine, in California. "The big unknown is why."

These findings run counter to previous studies which found that people who stick to their chronotype tend to be healthier, Zeitzer added.

For the study, researchers tracked nearly 74,000 middle-aged and older people in the United Kingdom.

More than 19,000 said they were morning types, while about 6,800 identified as evening types. The rest fell somewhere in the middle.

The participants were asked to wear an activity monitor to track their sleep over seven days. Their preferred sleep timing was then compared to both their actual sleep and their mental health, which was determined through their health records.

Analysis showed that night owls who stayed up late, in alignment with their preferred sleep timing, had higher rates of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

Night owls being true to their nature were 20% to 40% more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health problem, compared to evening types who nonetheless slept like a morning person or an average person.

"The worst-case scenario is definitely the late-night people staying up late,"Zeitzer said.

Morning larks who rose with the sun tended to have the best mental health of all, researchers found. But if they had to stay up late, their mental health suffered as well, although not as much as night owls'.

Zeitzer suspects these differences come down to the poor decisions people make in the early hours of the morning.

Suicide, violent crime, drinking, substance use and overeating are all more common at night, Zeitzer noted.

One theory called the "mind after midnight"hypothesis holds that body and brain changes late at night can make people more impulsive, negative and apt to take risks, the researchers said.

That might explain why morning people have an advantage even if they stay up late, Zeitzer said.

"If I had to hazard a guess, morning people who are up late are quite cognizant of the fact that their brain isn't working quite right, so they may put off making bad decisions,"Zeitzer said in a Stanford news release. "Meanwhile, the evening person who is up late thinks, 'I'm feeling great. This is a great decision I'm making at 3 o'clock in the morning.'"

The increased risk also might vary depending on where you are in the world.

For example, the United States and the United Kingdom tend to close down at night, with few people up and active.

On the other hand, nights are more gregarious in Mediterranean cultures, and it might be okay or even good for mental health to stay up late in those locales, researchers said.

"Maybe there are fewer social constraints late at night because you have fewer people around who are awake,"Zeitzer said.

The new study was published recently in the journal Psychiatry Research.

Zeitzer advises night owls to get to sleep before 1 a.m., but he admits that is easier said than done. Sleep patterns are stubbornly persistent.

His team plans to examine whether changing particular late-night behaviors, rather than sleep timing, could improve mental health.

"If you like being up late and just do what people normally do at 10 p.m., but you do it at 2 or 3 a.m. -- maybe that's not a problem,"he said.

More information

The Sleep Foundation has more about chronotypes.

SOURCE: Stanford Medicine, news release, May 19, 2024

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