Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Night Owls

We have all heard it. The early bird catches the worm. Early to bed, early to rise… So what is a night owl to do? I love staying up late. I always have. I write late at night. I read late at night. I plan menus and research vacation ideas. I wrap presents and drink tea late at night.

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It was my best-kept secret until email arrived. People noticed sent times from the wee hours on messages that greeted them when they opened their inbox over morning coffee. With raised eyebrows, they would remark, “you were up late last night.” The curtain pulled back, I’d squirm with embarrassment. Luckily, Outlook gave me a renewed cover with its launch of the “send later” option. But is it really so bad to be a night owl?

1. Circadian Rhythm vs. Chronotype? “Circadian” comes from the Latin ‘circa diem,’ which means ‘approximately a day.’ Circadian rhythms are tied to cycles of day and night and engaged with regulating melatonin in response to environmental factors such as light and temperature. Behavioral strategies are effective in shaping and managing our circadian rhythm. Our chronotype has a strong genetic component that is foundational and less responsive to environmental factors. Our chronotype and circadian rhythm work together to govern our experience of sleep and wakefulness throughout the day.

2. How many night owls are out there? Estimates vary. In a UK Biobank study of 433,268 adults aged 38 to 73, 27% of participants self-identified as definite morning types, 35% as moderate morning types, 28% as moderate evening types, and 9% as definite evening types. That being said, over the life course, the general developmental trend is that young children and older adults are more likely to be early birds while adolescents are more likely to be night owls. Given my late night tendencies, I was intrigued to learn that the UK study found night owls to be almost twice as likely as early birds to report psychological disorders.

3. What disorders are associated with staying up late? Night owls are at risk for eating a less healthy diet, including a greater proportion of fat, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and eating disorders. A preference for late hours is also associated with increased risk for mood disorders (particularly in those 50 years or older), higher rates of impulsivity and novelty seeking, and lower levels of harm avoidance. Evening types report higher consumption of both legal (nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine) and illegal psychoactive drugs.

4. What’s the mechanism? It is unclear why being a night owl is associated with certain mental health risks. It is possible that differences in mental health risk between early birds and night owls reflect genetic factors, but these patterns of risk may also be a function of differential environmental exposures that come with being up late at night. It is also likely that the environmental misalignment between one’s late-night chronotype and society’s expectations of a 9 – 5 workday contribute to a night owl’s mental health risk. Because night owls get to sleep later, if they try to conform to earlier wake times, they are at risk for sleep deprivation and irregular sleep, both of which adversely impact mental health.

5. Any good news for night owls? Many night owls feel like the world opens up as the sun goes down, so for many, myself included, staying up late is associated with great pleasure. Some research suggests that whereas early risers are typically considered to be more responsible than night owls, night owls tend to exhibit enhanced divergent thinking and reasoning skills and may demonstrate greater creativity than early birds. Another study suggests that night owls experience increased motor cortex and spinal cord “excitability” at night, resulting in subjective feelings of enhanced energy and strength.

As it turns out, my affinity for late nights puts me in good company. I have discovered that Mozart composed in the middle of the night. Gertrude Stein wrote in the middle of the night. President Obama considered his solitary hours after dark as essential to his time in the Oval Office. The list goes on… Winston Churchill, Carl Jung, J.R.R. Tolkien, Christina Aguilera … with my favorite being my son, Ben! Maybe the key takeaway is for each of us to know whether we are a night owl or early riser and be able to align our habits accordingly so that we optimize the benefits while staying mentally healthy and productive.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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