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How night owls can 'retrain' their body clocks to improve mental well-being

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London, June 10: A simple tweak to the sleeping patterns of 'night owls' - people with extreme late sleeping and waking habits -- may improve performance in the mornings, and reduce depression and stress, a study has found.

How night owls can retrain their body clocks to improve mental well-being

The research, published in the journal Sleep Medicine, showed that, over a three-week period, it was possible to shift the circadian rhythm of 'night owls' using non-pharmacological and practical interventions. The researchers from University of Birmingham and University of Surrey in the UK, and Monash University in Australia, showed that participants were able to bring forward their sleep/wake timings by two hours, while having no negative effect on sleep duration.

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In addition, participants reported a decrease in feelings of depression and stress, as well as in daytime sleepiness. "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," said Elise Facer-Childs from Monash University.

'Night owls' are individuals whose internal body clock dictates later-than-usual sleep and wake times -- in this study participants had an average bedtime of 2.30 am and wake-up time of 10.15 am. Disturbances to the sleep/wake system have been linked to a variety of 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 well being," said Andrew Bagshaw from the University of Birmingham. "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," said Bagshaw.

"Most interestingly, this was also associated with improvements in mental well being and perceived sleepiness, meaning that it was a very positive outcome for the participants," he said. "We now need to understand how habitual sleep patterns are related to the brain, how this links with mental well being and whether the interventions lead to long-term changes," he added.

Twenty-two healthy individuals participated in the study. For a period of three weeks participants in the experimental group were asked to wake up 2-3 hours before regular wake up time and maximise outdoor light during the mornings. The were also asked to 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.

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The results highlighted an increase in cognitive (reaction time) and physical (grip strength) 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. It also increased the number of days in which breakfast was consumed and led to better mental well-being, 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," said Debra Skene from the University of Surrey.

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