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New research suggests that when people’s sleep patterns are out of sync with their natural body clock, they may be at increased risk for depression and anxiety. Oscar Wong / Getty Images
  • Research suggests that being out of sync with your body clock may increase your risk of depression.
  • In addition, there appears to be a genetic link between wake time and depression risk.
  • It’s possible to train your body to be more in touch with its internal clock.

For some people, mornings are a time of productivity and alertness. However, others prefer to sleep later and get their best work done in the afternoon and evening.

Unfortunately for the later risers among us, the workplace tends to be more geared toward a 9-to-5 day, which forces night owls to wake up much earlier than they’d like.

Now, there’s research from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom that may explain just why a mismatch between the body clock and wake time may be bad for workers.

The research indicates that when people’s sleep patterns are out of sync with their body clock, they may be at increased risk for depression and anxiety. They may also report lowered feelings of well-being.

In addition, there appears to be a genetic link between wake time and depression risk.

The researchers based their work on previous research that had already mapped out 351 genes associated with either being an early riser or a night owl.

They then used a type of statistical analysis called Mendelian randomization to look at whether these genes were causally associated with seven mental health and well-being outcomes, such as major depression.

Data from more than 450,000 adults from the U.K. Biobank’s biomedical database was used in the analysis.

The data included genetic information as well as each person’s assessment about whether they felt they were a morning person or an evening person.

The team also created a new metric called “social jetlag.” This was used to measure the amount of variation in sleep patterns that people had on days they were working versus on their days off.

More than 85,000 participants from the U.K. Biobank who had worn activity monitors during sleep were able to have this measurement taken.

After analyzing the data, the team found that people who were more out of alignment with their natural body rhythm were more likely to report lower well-being and more feelings of depression and anxiety.

In addition, they found evidence that if a person’s genes have programmed them to be an early riser, this may help to protect them from depression, possibly because they would be in more alignment with society’s expectations as well as their natural circadian rhythm.

Michelle Drerup, PsyD, with the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center, who was not involved with the study, explained that the body clock, also known as the circadian clock, is an internal clock we all have that keeps track of time.

The body clock drives our body’s daily rhythm by controlling such things as body temperature, hunger, and sleep-wake patterns.

In addition, people have what’s known as a “chronotype,” she said.

“‘Early birds,’ or morning-type chronotypes, have an internal clock that leads to earlier awakenings, while ‘night owls,’ or evening-type chronotypes, typically have difficulty going to bed early and prefer to sleep later into morning,” Drerup said.

She said that chronotypes often shift with age, but genetics largely determine them and behavior reinforces them.

The study authors say the findings are “the most robust evidence yet” that being a morning person protects against depression and improves well-being.

However, Drerup believes that more research is needed before we can say that there’s a cause-effect relationship between sleep times and depression risk.

“If night owls are able to shift to waking slightly earlier, this means they will experience more daylight during waking hours, which tends to have benefits,” she explained.

Drerup said she feels that the most important thing a person can focus on is getting enough sleep to meet their own individual needs.

Drerup said that to a certain extent, people can become more in sync with their body clock by providing cues at the right time to signal to their body that it’s time to sleep or wake up.

She suggests the following strategies to help train your body to follow its internal clock:

  • Set your alarm to wake up at the same time every day.
  • Make sure you get exposure to bright light soon after waking.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet, and avoid large meals at night.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Limit naps, especially later in the day.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco in the evening.
  • Turn off screens at least 1 hour before bedtime.

Cristiano L. Guarana, PhD, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, who researches how sleep patterns affect decision making, relationships, and behaviors in complex organizational contexts, further suggested wearing blue light-filtering glasses before bedtime to improve sleep quality.

He pointed to a small experimental study he authored indicating that wearing blue light-filtering glasses helped improve sleep, work engagement, and several behaviors, including task performance, organizational citizenship behavior, and counterproductive work behavior.

According to the study, filtering blue light may have the same physiological effects as nighttime darkness.

He suggested that this intervention might be especially helpful for night owls.

However, more research is needed to show whether blue light-filtering glasses can be an effective treatment.

Guarana said that ideally, organizations could create different work shifts, make work scheduling more flexible, or minimize the use of night shifts to help their workers.

He does acknowledge, however, that, for certain professions (for example, healthcare and law enforcement), this will not be feasible.

Guarana also noted that this study makes a good case for why we should continue the flexible work patterns that many employers adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Flexible work patterns can be a solution for individual differences in circadian processes (or chronotypes),” he said.

“However, there are some complications related to the social context that, if not addressed, will not help night owls. For example, school starting time. If kids have to wake up early to go to school, parents will probably have to wake up too,” he said.

Guarana also noted that there’s some evidence of employers holding stereotypical views about night owls, with early risers being perceived as “better” employees.

These hurdles would need to be overcome, he explained.