Most college students say that their sleeping habits change from high school to college. People that slept from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. in high school now stay up till two in the morning and wake up hours after 8 a.m. While this change may seem fairly innocuous, becoming a night owl has serious health consequences.
A study recently done by Korean researchers at Korea University suggests that being a night person can lead to diabetes and weight gain. Researchers recruited 1,620 men and women, ages 47-59, to the study. Each individual was given a questionnaire regarding their sleeping habits, allowing the researchers to establish if the individual was a night person or a morning person. From the questionnaire results, the scientists determined that out of the group of 1,620 people, 480 were morning people (29.6 percent of total participants), 95 were night people (5.9 percent of total participants) and 1,045 individuals that did not fit either category (64.5 percent of total participants).
The scientists then measured different health and behavioral factors including glucose tolerance, waist size and body composition. After controlling for different variables, scientists found that the adults that were considered “night owls” by the scientists were more likely to have diabetes, sarcopenia (the gradual loss of muscle mass in adults) and metabolic syndrome (the tendency to have higher waist sizes, increased blood sugar levels, and abnormal lipid readings). Gender disparities were also apparent. Men that were night owls were more likely to have diabetes and sarcopenia whereas women that slept later tended to have metabolic syndrome. In fact, only women were associated with metabolic syndrome. Diabetes, sarcopenia, and metabolic syndrome are all metabolic disorders, or disorders that affect how the chemical reactions in our body occur. Therefore, the researchers were able to conclude that sleeping patterns have a significant impact on our physical health by affecting our metabolism.
Although the sample of participants only included middle-aged men and women, the explanation that researchers gave for the increase in metabolic disorders for night owls applies to everyone. They suggested that eating after 8 p.m. and exposure to artificial light are the main causes for changes in metabolism, which lead to diabetes, sarcopenia, and weight gain, for people who tend to sleep late.
Eating late at night and exposure to artificial light affect metabolism because sleeping patterns, as well as metabolism, stem from circadian rhythms, which are the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that occur during the 24-hour cycle. While sleeping and waking up earlier seem like solutions to changing our circadian rhythms so that our metabolism is higher, genetics are partially responsible for determining our sleeping patterns. Our chronotype, or our natural disposition toward timings of day and rest, is determined in part by our parents, but studies also show that chronotypes are largely variable because they are not the only determinants of sleeping patterns. In fact, a study by Wright et al. published in the journal Current Biology showed that when eight people were taken camping and no artificial light was used for a week, everyone slept at sunset and woke up at sunrise. The key was artificial light, from devices such as cell phones, alarm clocks, and computers.
To lead a healthier life, try to adjust the time you go to sleep by adjusting your artificial light intake late at night. Avoid using your laptop late at night and try not to check your phone right before you go to sleep. This will not only help you go to sleep earlier to wake up earlier but sleeping earlier will also prevent you from snacking late at night and disrupting your metabolism. Although it may seem like your sleeping patterns are genetically predetermined, most people do not fall under either chronotype. Thus, other factors, such as exposure to artificial light, play a significant role in what time and for how much time we sleep at night. Of course, if you fall under a clear chronotype, it might actually be harmful to your health to make drastic changes. However, not changing sleeping patterns early on can potentially lead to serious health problems later in life.
Tanvee Varma ’18 is a contributing writer for the Online Edition of The Wellesley News. While she is not studying towards her degree in Economics, she enjoys reading and spending time at the Science Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.