Night owls can retrain their body clocks to improve mental well-being and performance

Sleep times

Night owls can retrain their body clocks to improve mental well-being and performance

A simple tweak to the sleeping patterns of night owls could lead to significant improvements in sleep and wake times, better performance in the mornings, healthier eating habits, and a decrease in depression and stress.

Night owls are folks whose internal body clock dictates later-than-usual sleep and wake times. Having a late sleep pattern puts you at odds with the standard societal days, which can lead to a range of problems, from daytime sleepiness to poorer mental wellbeing.

Night owlsDisturbances to the sleep/wake system have been linked to a variety of health issues, including mood swings, increased sickness and mortality rates, and declines in cognitive and physical performance.

New research published in Sleep Medicine showed that over a three-week period, it was possible to shift the circadian rhythm of night owls using non-pharmacological and practical interventions.

The study showed participants were able to bring forward their sleep/wake timings by two hours, while having no negative effect on sleep duration. In addition, participants reported a decrease in feelings of depression and stress, as well as in daytime sleepiness.

Participants in the study had an average bedtime of 2:30am and wake-up time of 10:15am. But, for a period of three weeks participants in the experiment were asked to:

  • Wake up 2-3 hours before regular wake time and maximize outdoor light during the mornings.
  • Go to bed 2-3 hours before habitual bedtime and limit light exposure in the evenings.
  • Keep sleep/wake times fixed on both work days and free days.
  • Have breakfast as soon as possible after waking up, eat lunch at the same time each day, and refrain from eating dinner after 7pm.

The results highlighted an increase in cognitive (reaction time) and physical (grip strength) performance during the morning when tiredness is often very high in night owls, as well as a shift in peak performance times from evening to afternoon. It also increased the number of days in which breakfast was consumed and led to better mental well-being.

Night owls tend to have more difficulty in our society due to having to fit into work/school schedules that are out of sync with their preferred patterns. Acknowledging these differences and developing skills to address them can go a long way in a society that is under constant pressure to achieve optimal productivity and performance.

This research suggests that establishing simple routines could help night owls adjust their body clocks and improve their overall physical and mental health.


Authored by:  Dr. Kiara Moore


Elise R. Facer-Childs, Benita Middleton, Debra J. Skene, Andrew P. Bagshaw. Resetting the late timing of ‘night owls’ has a positive impact on mental health and performance. Sleep Medicine, 2019.