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The Night Owl Effect and Your Health

Some people wake up early, fresh, and roaring to go. Others, on the other hand, are not morning people. They keep late nights, and would rather wake up a few hours later. Coffee may be the first thing that makes up their early morning ritual, and they tend to do their best work from late afternoon until well into the night. These are those for whom the term ‘night owl’ has been coined.

Differences Between a Night Owl and an Early Bird

Studies show that, when comparing those who get up early and those who go to sleep late, the two groups tend to show certain differing personality traits.

People who get up early, for example, have a tendency to not tire as quickly as their night owl counterparts. They are more persistent, and more able to resist frustration and difficulties, while they also tend to have less anxiety and depression. They also seem to have less of a likelihood of abusing alcohol and/or drugs.

A night owl, on the other hand, and also, generally speaking, tends to be more extravagant, impulsive, and temperamental. People in this group are also more likely to have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), suffer from insomnia, and have a higher tendency towards mental disorders and addiction. This includes antisocial tendencies and mental disorders.

Two possible reasons for the differences between these two groups have been determined. The first is that your genes play a role in determining your inner circadian rhythm. This refers to your inner clock that regulates both your sleep and physiological processing. Interestingly, a number of studies have linked the genes governing your circadian rhythm to a number of mood disorders, the occurrence of schizophrenia, and drug misuse.

The second possible reason is when your biological clock and that of society become unsynchronized. When this happens, people tend to have to force themselves into a certain pattern of behavior in order to adapt to the schedule commonly kept by everyone else and what is considered the social norm. Someone classified as a night owl may find this difficult, and over time, develop anxiety or depression (as well as other disorders as previously mentioned).

But being a night owl also has its positive side. This group includes those who tend to be more creative. The downside, however, is that they have a much higher mortality rate, i.e. they are more prone to die at an earlier age than their early bird counterparts.

The Night Owl Gene

Many a night owl will tell you they prefer to work at night, as they have the quiet they need to concentrate better without distractions. Others might tell you they prefer the dark to the light. The reasons they may come up with as to why they stay up so late may all differ. Researchers, however, have determined that most night owls have one thing in common – a mutated gene. To be more specific, a variant of the CRY1 gene that slows down your circadian clock. The result is someone who gets tired and is ready to sleep much later at night.

It is your circadian clock that determines your sleeping and waking patterns. In those who have the night owl mutated CRY1 gene, their circadian rhythm is extended. In other words, their bodies are programmed to stay up later than other people. Interestingly, research indicates that this gene mutation may affect up to as much as one in every 75 people.

Night Owl Studies

It is estimated that up to seventy million U.S. citizens alone suffer from some type of sleeping disorder. Included amongst these are those suffering from various related conditions such as insomnia and narcolepsy. People with sleeping disorders of whatever kind are more predisposed towards diabetes, obesity, and depression. Being a night owl is often associated with what is known as delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD), where the sleep and wake cycle is delayed. This usually leaves these people feeling energized long after other people have already gone to bed. Of course, this implies they would wake up later in the morning. Studies have linked the night owl gene mutation to DSPD, a neurological sleep disorder where the sleep/wake cycle is delayed when compared to the regular day/night cycle.

Society, however, has people waking up at a certain time to get to work, school, or for other activities at a certain time in the morning, resulting in night owls usually not getting the recommended eight hours of sleep per night. The end result is not only too little sleep but someone who is tired for the greater part of the day.

But not only is the circadian rhythm of those with the night owl gene affected, their body temperature and hormones also seem to be affected, most particularly, melatonin. Melatonin plays an important role in sleep regulation, with levels increasing around the time most people go to sleep. In the case of a night owl, the melatonin levels may only go up in the early hours of the morning.

How a Hormone Imbalance Contributes to the Night Owl Effect

Being a night owl may have devastating consequences to your neuroaffective circuit. This circuit is part of your body’s NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response, i.e. your body’s automatic response to stress which results in the increase in cortisol and other stress-related hormones. When stress is continuous in nature, this increase in cortisol production may be long-term, with devastating implications for your health and well-being. One of these consequences is a hormonal imbalance.

Night owls, specifically, have a tendency towards a deficiency in melatonin. Symptoms commonly associated with a melatonin insufficiency may relate to Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome. Amongst these symptoms are included

  • DSPD (night owl effect)
  • Insomnia
  • Memory loss
  • Depression
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Osteoporosis
  • Acid reflux
  • Infertility
  • Menopausal issues
  • Stress

Where Does Melatonin Come From?

Night owl effect and melatonin

Melatonin is synthesized and secreted by the pineal gland which is found in the brain. The main function of this hormone is to communicate information about lighting to the different parts of the body. In so doing, it plays an integral part in your body’s biological rhythm and has an impact on your reproductive and many other body functions.

The pineal gland itself is located more or less in the upper central part of the brain, where it uses serotonin to make melatonin. In other words, serotonin is the precursor of melatonin and is a neurotransmitter that is derived from tryptophan, an amino acid. Interestingly, tryptophan plays a role in appetite suppression as well.

Cortisol Impacts Melatonin Production

Serotonin also plays a role in cortisol production. Under normal circumstances, when your body is in a state of balance, this poses no problem. During periods of stress, however, your body produces more cortisol, utilizing more of your available serotonin. This usually poses no problem as a balance is once more maintained once the stressful situation passes. Constant stress, however, leads to an imbalance regarding the production of melatonin as increasing amounts of serotonin are reserved for cortisol production in the adrenal glands. The end result is a steady decline in melatonin, and of course, a skewering of your internal circadian rhythm which leads to many people becoming what is commonly referred to as ‘night owls’.

Addressing the Issue

You would think that by increasing your tryptophan intake your body would produce more serotonin and that this would allow your pineal gland to up its melatonin production. While suffering from adrenal fatigue this might be true, but you also have the possibility that even more cortisol may be produced.

It is not uncommon for those practicing conventional medicine to prescribe 5-hydroxytryptophan for those with sleeping issues. This is a chemically modified form of the amino acid tryptophan. Abuse of this supplement, however, may result in neurological damage and may result in a condition known as serotonin syndrome – characterized by an excess of serotonin. Tryptophan is present in many foods, so diet may be more beneficial in upping these reserves in order to help in balancing your melatonin (and other hormones) production. Besides getting the necessary tryptophan your body requires for the production of serotonin and melatonin, a good diet also provides you with the other essential amino acids, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals your body requires in order to function at an optimal level. In so doing, you also get the calories needed to help combat fatigue, get rid of food cravings, and balance your blood sugar levels.

Night owl effect and protein

While tryptophan is present in plants, animal protein sources generally have more concentrated amounts of this and other amino acids. Combining your protein with unrefined carbohydrates helps tryptophan cross your blood-brain barrier, and in so doing, boost serotonin (and thus melatonin) levels.

Foods That Contain Large Amounts of Tryptophan Include, Amongst Others:

  • Red meat
  • Beans and legumes
  • Potatoes
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products
  • Walnuts, cashew nuts, and sesame seeds
  • Bananas

In Closing

Please note that being a night owl is not a psychological disorder. Instead, it is a neurological disorder that may be the result of a gene mutation. It could, however, lead to certain psychological issues because a night owl may very often get too little sleep. While you cannot change the makeup of your genes, you can do much to try and manage this condition in a natural, effective manner.

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