No matter how many healthy choices we make, there are some disease risk factors we just can’t change. Our age, race, genders, and other genetic qualities all tend to sway us into or out of high-risk categories for just about every known disease and condition. But what about our circadian rhythms? As much a part of us as all of our other deeply engrained characteristics, it turns out that our circadian rhythms – or natural wake/eat/sleep clocks – can also put us at higher or lower risk for health problems.
Specifically, recent studies have shown that night owls – those whose brains are wired to stay up late and sleep late – are linked to greater risk for things like mental health disorders, heart disease, and diabetes.
And Now the Good News
But here’s the good news for night owls: While there may be little you can do to change your natural circadian rhythm, there is something you can do about its effect on your health. The reason night owls are at greater risk than early birds for these health conditions is largely a matter of lifestyle. The later hours are typically associated with less physical activity, more unhealthy eating, and indulging in less healthy behaviors like smoking and drinking. As the world sleeps, it seems it’s more difficult for night owls to make the kinds of healthy choices early birds do. But that can change.
Make Intentional Choices
The key to living a healthier lifestyle as a night owl is to make the same kinds of choices through the later hours as you would through the early hours. For example, you may not have daylight for outdoor exercise, but there are 24-hour gyms. The same approach goes for choices in nutrition.
Watch Your Reach
Late-night snacks don’t have to be junk food. If you’re committed to a later lifestyle, adjust your mealtimes to match and, to reduce the likelihood that you will engage in mindless overnight snacking, keep healthy foods within reach:
- Avoid empty carbohydrates and foods high in salt, but reach for complex carbohydrates and foods high in fiber.
- Avoid sugar, but reach for fruits and veggies. Make them snackable by cutting up fresh fruits and veggies and storing them in airtight containers in your fridge.
- Avoid saturated fats, but reach for foods rich in “healthy fats.” These foods include nuts, nut butters, and avocados.
- Avoid grazing, but reach for a plate. Even in the late-night hours, a meal can be a sit-down affair. In fact, doing just this can help you portion the right amounts of food and resist the temptation to overeat. And if you’re up late and sleep deprived, you should know that sleep deprivation reduces hormones that tell your brain when you’re full, so this makes it especially important for night owls to watch portion size.
In addition to following these nutritional tips, if you’re a night owl, make sure you’re doing everything you can to stay healthy. Adapt to a regular and sufficient sleep schedule that works with your commitments, exercise regularly, make sure you’re getting some sunlight and outdoor time each day, and avoid substance abuse. Also, make sure you’re discussing any concerns about your sleep habits with your physician, who can work with you in creating a plan for getting better sleep.
Dr. Michelle Udayamurthy is a board-certified Internal Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold. She cares for her patients at the Spencer R. Berthelsen, M.D., Main Campus. She views the doctor-patient relationship as one of the most important parts of healthcare. Her clinical interest is preventive medicine.