Going to bed late could damage your mental health, new study says

A woman sits up in bed unable to sleep
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Are you a night owl or a morning lark? We all operate on a sleep schedule that works for the routines and rhythms of our unique lives, but many of us would describe ourselves as being either a natural early riser, someone who prefers to stay up late into the night — or sitting somewhere in the middle. 

However, new research suggests that night owl behavior could be harming our mental health. A large study conducted by scientists at Stanford Medicine indicates that those who admit to staying awake into the early hours of the morning had higher rates of mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. 

Key takeaways from the new study:

  • Those who go to bed later are more likely to suffer from poor mental health
  • Those who go to bed and wake early have best mental health 
  • For healthy ageing, it's recommended that you go to sleep before 1am

Regardless of whether study participants were staying up late out of necessity or following a natural urge to burn the midnight oil, researchers discovered that going to sleep after 1am had a detrimental effect on their mental health. 

Here, we’ll take a closer look at what this study means for our sleep behavior, plus explore ways we can shift our sleep patterns with the help of a chartered psychologist. 

What are chronotypes and how do they impact sleep?  

As well as our schedules and routines, there’s also a biological reason for our tendency to either stay up late, wake up early, or sit somewhere between both. This is due to our chronotype, which helps determine when you feel the natural urge to sleep. 

As well as when you feel most inclined to sleep, our chronotype — determined by genetics, age and other factors — can also influence your core body temperature and your eating habits. There are four main chronotypes, each with a different preferred window of productivity, wake and sleep times. 

Unlike our circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock), you’re unable to change your chronotype. While that doesn’t mean you’re unable to sleep outside of what feels most natural, it can be difficult to maintain a sleep schedule that goes against your chronotype. 

How staying up late could affect mental health  

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Researchers at Stanford Medicine followed the sleep habits of over 73,888 adults in the UK, each of whom identified as a morning type, evening type, or somewhere in the middle. At the end of the study, they found that evening types were more likely to suffer from poorer mental health.

Regardless of whether study participants were staying up late out of necessity or following a natural urge determined by their chronotype, the outcome — higher rates of mental and behavioral disorders — remained the same. 

“We found that alignment with your chronotype is not crucial here, and that really it’s being up late that is not good for your mental health,” Jamie Zeitzer, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the senior author of the study, told the Stanford Medicine news center. “The big unknown is why.”

The study found that morning types, those who go to bed early and wake early, had the best mental health of all groups. 

How to fix your sleep schedule in 5 steps

If you’re a night owl looking to shift your sleep schedule to earlier in the morning, you can. We spoke to Dr Lindsay Browning, a chartered psychologist and neuroscientist, earlier last year to find out exactly how to fix a broken sleep schedule. Whether your nighttime habits have become skewed due to parenting, nighttime procrastination, here are Dr Browning's top tips to retraining your body to going to sleep earlier. 

1. Shift your bedtime back by 20 minutes 

If you're currently going to bed at 1am and you'd like to be in bed by 11pm, it can be temping to hop into bed at 10.55pm and hope for the best - resist the urge to do this. 

“Yes you can fix this straight off and get up two hours earlier than you are right now, but that will be harder initially than if you were to fix your sleep schedule over several days,@ explains Dr Browning. "Shifting your sleep by 20 minutes a day is easily doable and has no negative effects whatsoever.”

Using this method means that you could shift your sleep schedule forwards by an entire hour over the course of one weekend. 

2. Shift your wake time forward by 20 minutes 

A woman with dark hair wakes up smiling after a great night's sleep

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If you're adjusting your bed time, you need to adjust your wake time, too. “Don’t forget that if you’re moving your bedtime back by 20 minutes a night, you need to move your wake time forward by 20 minutes a day," says Dr Browning. "And it’s really important to get up straight away because if you let yourself sleep in, all of this work is pointless. Pressing the snooze button several times is one of the worst things you can do for your sleep.”

3. Set a bedtime reminder 

“Owl types need to set bedtime reminders, because otherwise they’ll keep going and then before they know it, it’s 2am and they have to be up at 7am for work," explains Dr Browning. "All that happens there is the owl misses out on sleep. On weekends, resist the temptation to go to bed late and wake up late because that’s going to shift your body clock again."

4. Don't skip breakfast 

A woman eats breakfast in bed

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As a night owl, you also need to think about when you're eating, because if you skip breakfast and don’t eat until around 11am, your body won’t think it’s morning until 11am. "Even if you can’t face eating a full breakfast upon waking up, have something small to wake up your digestive system. Otherwise you’ll be sleepwalking through the morning."

5. Get plenty of early sunlight exposure 

We might not be able to change our chronotype, but we can adjust our circadian rhythm - and one of the most effective tools at our disposal is natural daylight. “Owls aren’t at their best first thing, so it’s more important for them to get really good sun exposure first thing to help boost them into feeling more awake," explains Dr Browning. 

Early morning daylight exposure prompts your body to produce a hormone called serotonin, which helps you feel alert and refreshed. Serotonin later becomes metabolised into melatonin, the hormone which helps signal to your body that it's time for sleep, which will make it easier for you to nod off at night.   

Nicola Appleton
Sleep Features Editor

Nicola Appleton is Sleep Features Editor at Tom’s Guide, specialising in quality news content surrounding sleep and wellbeing. Nicola cut her teeth as a journalist in a busy newsroom in Bristol, UK, 15 years ago as part of a team at Britain's largest independent press agency. Since then, her job as a journalist has taken her to the States, to Sydney, and then back to Blighty, where she has written and edited features for a whole host of prominent British and international brands, including  The Independent, The Sydney Morning Herald, HuffPost, Refinery29, Stylist and more. As well as tackling the vast topic of sleep, Nicola will be joining the raft of expert mattress reviewers at Tom's Guide, helping steer readers towards the very best mattresses on the market.