Late Sleepers are in Health Danger
- What’s Your Chronotype?
- Who’s at Risk for Sleep Loss?
- How to Get Better Sleep Every Night
- Avoid Sleeping Pills. Try This Instead.
- Good Health = Good Sleep (and Vice Versa)
Every day you are driven by a pair of clocks – the clock on the wall and the clock in your body. The one on the wall is your schedule keeper. The clock in your body is your sleep schedule.
For most people, these clocks are in sync, but millions of people live daily in disjointed “time zones.” The clocks in their bodies tell them to stay awake longer and wake up later than what the clock on the wall suggests they should. Or worse, they wake up at the same time with everybody else but with inadequate sleep.
New research shows that being a late sleeper may be more genetic than habit, but it could lead to a host of health risks…including early death. If you struggle with your sleep schedule, I want to share with you the biological differences of early risers and late sleepers and show you ways that you can improve the quality of your sleep.
What’s Your Chronotype?
Have you ever felt groggy after you’ve slept too much? Have you ever slept past your alarm and franticly scrambled to put yourself together to avoid running late? Have you ever hit that 3 pm slump… at 11 am?
That’s how night owls and late sleepers feel nearly every morning when they wake up. And the problem many of them face is that though they want to go to sleep in time to get seven or eight hours, their body clock tells them otherwise.
All of us have an internal sleep preference called a chronotype. And new research shows the danger of having a later chronotype (going to sleep after midnight). Scientists in the United Kingdom studied the sleeping patterns of 433,000 men and women over the course of six and a half years. Those with a later chronotype had a 10 percent increased likelihood of dying compared to those with an earlier chronotype.
All things totaled, a 10 percent increase is still relatively small when you consider that your actual risk of dying is small. However, anything that clearly demonstrates an increased risk for early death – no matter how small – should be taken seriously.
But to me, the greater concern is deeper in the research. The study also revealed greater rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory disease, gastrointestinal problems, and psychological distress among people with a later chronotype.
I consider each of those health risks as bricks that pave the road to early death. Each of those means another regular trip to a specialist, which means more co-pays, more sick days, and more prescribed medications.
The value of quality sleep cannot be understated and it’s critical to your health that you get it. The good news is that you can, starting as soon as tonight.
Who’s at Risk for Sleep Loss?
According to the research study, about 50 percent of people have an average chronotype and generally sleep between 11 pm to 7 am, give or take an hour. Nearly just as many have earlier or later chronotypes – with some sleeping and waking a little earlier or later – but not to the point where it significantly affects their health and daily functioning.
But about 1 percent of people have what’s called advanced sleep phase syndrome. As the name suggests, they sleep a lot. That’s because their biological clocks tell them it’s time to sleep around 8 pm and continue sleeping until the rooster crows. And an even smaller percentage, 0.2 percent, have a chronotype that’s called a “delayed sleep phase,” which is the chronic inability to go to sleep earlier.
While I think this is an important research study, it tends to focus on people who are genetically unable to sleep. Broadly speaking, tens of millions more people are not sleeping as long and as well as they should and it has nothing to do with their chronotype. And that’s because so many things are causing them to go to bed late, wake up early, and wake up in the middle in the night.
The biggest culprits: stress, anxiety, poor diet, and lack of exercise. Decades of research connects them to poor sleep and also with higher risks for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory disease, gastrointestinal problems, and psychological distress – the very things that poor sleepers are more at risk for to begin with!
As you can see, sleep loss is a dangerous cycle that can wrap up anyone who isn’t taking good care of their health.
A small number of people have poor sleep in their genes. But there’s a good chance you aren’t one of them, which means that if you aren’t getting quality sleep, you can probably control the factors that are stealing your ZZZs.
How to Get Better Sleep Every Night
When you sleep, your body uses that time to relax, detoxify and repair your muscles, tissues, and bones. Your heart slows down from its daytime rate. And, in your brain, cerebrospinal fluid washes out amyloid plaques, the very plaques that are present in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
You can start sleeping better as soon as tonight with a few lifestyle changes that can ensure that you get 7 to 8 hours of sleep nearly every night.
Eating for good sleep is the same as eating for good health – fresh, local, organic, and unprocessed food. A healthy diet includes fats, carbs and naturally occurring sugars, but you should avoid having them during your evening meal because they take longer to digest, which impedes your body’s ability to rest. Focus on protein and low-sugar vegetables. Also, avoid flavor enhancers such as aspartame, casein and monosodium glutamate.
Exercising for good sleep makes perfect sense for the very simple fact that you are tired after a good workout. So it’s no surprise that stacks of research links regular exercise (at least 30 minutes a day) to improved sleep.
Meditate for good sleep because meditation trains your mind to compartmentalize all those thoughts that are stirring when you are trying to fall asleep. The deep breathing helps your body calm down, not only while you’re meditating but for hours afterward. The peacefulness is a natural stress relief – if only for 10 minutes a day. Removing stress is removing a barrier to better sleep.
Prepare your day when you’re awake. Many people force themselves to wake up early to get everything prepared for the next day. But if you’re naturally late to sleep, make those preparations part of your routine for going to bed. Pack your bag, make your breakfast, and select your clothes the night before. Get a timer for the pet feeder and your morning coffee. Take a shower at night and just wash your face come morning. Try to cut the time between rising and pulling out of the driveway to 15 minutes.
Avoid Sleeping Pills. Try This Instead.
If you are desperate for better sleep, it can be tempting to reach for sleeping pills to fall asleep. If they can do one thing well, it’s knocking you out. But your body needs to sleep, not to be knocked out. When you are knocked out, your body and brain are not recovering nearly as well as they would if you were sleeping naturally without a chemical bombardment in your blood.
Instead, if you need some extra help settling into sleep, try taking a melatonin supplement. Unlike sleeping pills, melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in your body that helps regulate your sleep cycle. You produce it when the sky darkens, signaling to your body that it’s bedtime.
But we don’t live by candlelight anymore. Each room has lights and lamps. You’re likely to have at least two TVs in your home. Phones and tablets are within reach, if not in your hand already. All that light can confuse your brain and endocrine system and prevent the release of melatonin at the very time your body needs it.
So, try turning down your artificial lights after sunset. And start with 1 mg of melatonin, 30–60 minutes before bedtime. If that doesn’t help, slowly increase your dosage up to 3 mg per night.
Good Health = Good Sleep (and Vice Versa)
Good sleep is good health. It’s as simple as that. If you are part of the 1.2 percent of people who are genetically predisposed to poor sleep, please know that it’s not a death sentence. Just keep an eye on the major markers of your health such as blood sugar, cholesterol, and inflammation.
For the rest of you who just need more and better sleep, getting more exercise and making simple changes to your diet will likely bring you back to 7 – 8 hours of sleep per night. And if you need extra help, consider meditation and melatonin over sleeping pills.
- Resnick, Brian. “Why Being a Night Owl May Lead to Earlier Death.” Vox. Published April 16, 2018.
- Reynolds, Gretchen. “How Meditation Changes the Brain and Body.” New York Times. Published February 18, 2016.