Changing from a night owl to an early bird ‘only takes a few weeks’

“Night owls” can retrain their body clocks within as little as three weeks to help them become earlier risers, a study has suggested.

Simple tweaks to the sleeping patterns of those who are habitually late to bed could significantly improve a person’s wellbeing, according to researchers.

Those who participated in the study reported feeling less stressed and depressed, as well as less sleepy during the day.

The research, by the universities of Birmingham and Surrey, and Monash University in Australia, involved 22 “night owls”, whose internal body clocks dictated later-than-usual sleep and wake times.

Their average bedtime was 2.30am, with a wake-up time of 10.15am.

For a period of three weeks, the participants were asked to bring forward their sleep and wake times by two to three hours, keep the timings fixed on working days and days off and get plenty of sunshine in the mornings.

They were also told to eat breakfast as soon as possible after waking up, eat lunch at the same time each day and eat dinner no later than 7pm.

The results, published in the journal Sleep Medicine, showed an increase in cognitive (reaction time) and physical (grip strength) performance during the morning, while peak performance times shifted from evening to afternoon.

“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,” said study co-author Dr Andrew Bagshaw, from the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health.

“We wanted to see if there were simple things people could do at home to solve the 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.”

As well as suffering poorer mental wellbeing, “night owls” can often struggle to fit into work and school schedules that are out of sync with their preferred sleep patterns.

“By acknowledging these differences and providing tools to improve outcomes we can go a long way in a society that is under constant pressure to achieve optimal productivity and performance,” said lead researcher Dr Elise Facer-Childs, from Monash University’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health.