Sleep; “night owls” more at risk of depression (plus other health issues)

A study from Exeter University says that our genes are partly responsible for determining whether we are early risers, “larks”, and are more active in the morning, or we are owls, more active past midnight, needing to sleep in.

Samuel Jones, a research fellow studying the genetics of sleeping patterns at Exeter Medical School reported these findings to the UK press. It appears that genetic pre-dispositioning, our chronotype, means we individually react differently to daylight and our natural circadian rhythms. Another interesting factor is that on average, night owls sleep 48 minutes per night less than larks.

Being a night owl may also be linked to health conditions , such as diabetes, psychological disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, neurological isssues, including depression, and respiratory conditions, the study found.

One of the conclusions reached by the researchers was that the accepted Western work schedule doesn’t always match the individual’s natural circadian rhythm. For the night owl, being up earlier than their body dictates, means that they don’t have adequate sleep. The lifestyles of the night owls also play a factor with a less healthy diet, eg more alcohol, illegal drugs and fast foods.

It is generally understood that too little sleep will have negative consequences on health but we don’t have to accept that there is nothing we can do about our habits and existing ways of living. A person’s “chronotype” , according to Kristen L Knutson PhD, Associate Professor of Neurology (Sleep Medicine) Feinberg School of Medicine, is 50% genetic and 50% determined by the environment. Added to this, peoples sleep patterns can change and vary during their lifetimes. Sleep deprivation, inadequate sleep, can be overcome. By making changes in our environments we can become healthier and happier.

Another simple explanation for poor sleep is an overload of stress and anxiety from the working day, I have worked with hundreds of people suffering from a wide range of mental, physical and environmental issues which are the result of stress, past and present. When we are stressed, our hearts beat faster and our bodies respond with the production of many chemicals, in particular, cortisol. Cortisol overproduction can stop us from going to sleep, wake us up before we have fully recharged our batteries and leave us feeling flat, lack-lustre and mentally low.

Another issue people suffer from is night anxiety, which is really day anxiety carried over. Among other things, this can lead to “restless legs” which is probably linked with the physical playout of the “fight/flight” chemicals stored in our body. When we produce these chemicals during the day, (to help us run away, or fight) due to today’s societal norms, they sit in the body unable to release or be naturally discharged by the process for which they evolved – ie to run away or fight back. These chemicals no longer have their natural, spontaneous outlet.

This is why we shout, slam doors, stride off or go to the gym and hit the punch bag. Finger-drumming, foot-tapping, ballpoint pen-clicking are important markers of stress and anxiety. Getting to bed, tossing and turning, unable to switch off thoughts and worries means that the day’s anxiety is still there.

With some adjustments and minor modifications, you can begin to change your body clock’s routine into a more beneficial, health supporting rhythm.

Just email me paula@paularuane.com for more information for preventative and enduring techniques or download my stress management tips to give temporary relief. Start now

You might like to take the alertness and stress quiz to see how your sleep and stress levels are doing. Start now

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