Sleepless night owls can retrain their body clocks to stave off depression and stress caused by the condition, British scientists claim.
Those whose body clocks dictate going to bed late are often left sleepy in the day, eating badly with depression and stress.
But researchers found that bringing their sleep forward by just two hours had a lasting effect.
Disturbances to the circadian rhythm are also linked to mood swings, increased morbidity and mortality rates and declines in cognitive and physical performance.
But scientists from the Universities of Birmingham and Surrey found that within three weeks they could get night owls going to bed earlier without the need for medication.
Along with colleagues from Monash University in Australia, their study found that on average, night owls were going to bed at 2.30am and getting up at 10.15am.
Dr Andrew Bagshaw from the University of Birmingham said: “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 wellbeing.
“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.
“Most interestingly, this was also associated with improvements in mental wellbeing and perceived sleepiness, meaning that it was a very positive outcome for the participants.
“We now need to understand how habitual sleep patterns are related to the brain, how this links with mental wellbeing and whether the interventions lead to long-term changes.”
The 22 participants in the study were all healthy and were made to change their routine by wake up 2-3 hours before regular wake up time and maximise outdoor light during the mornings.
They also had to go to bed 2-3 hours before their ‘normal’ time and limit light exposure in the evening as well as keeping fixed sleep times on work and free days,
eating breakfast as soon as possible after waking up, eat lunch at the same time each day, and having dinner before 7pm.
The results showed an increase in cognitive and physical 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.
Lead researcher Dr Elise Facer-Childs from Monash University’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health said: “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.”
Professor Debra Skene from the University of Surrey added: “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,”
The study, published in Sleep Medicine said ‘night owls’, compared to ‘morning larks’, tended to be more compromised in society due to having to fit to work/school schedules that are out of sync with their preferred patterns.
The researchers said their findings might also help in industry or within sporting sectors, which have a key focus on developing strategies to maximise productivity and optimise performance at certain times and in different conditions.