Being a night owl can be a challenge in a world where workplaces, schools and colleges are based around early morning starts, but new research shows that simple tweaks to people’s sleep routines can turn owls into larks, improving their mental wellbeing and performance in the process.

Recent international research by the Universities of Birmingham and Surrey in the UK, and Monash University in Australia, showed that night owls — people with extreme late sleeping and waking habits — can retrain their body clocks.

The study, published in the journal Sleep Medicine, focused on 22 healthy night owls whose internal body clock dictated later-than-usual sleep and wake times. In the study, participants had an average bedtime of 2.30am and wake up time of 10.15am.

For a period of three weeks participants in the experimental group were asked to do the following.

  • Wake up two to three hours before regular wake up time and maximise outdoor light during the mornings.

  • Go to bed two to three hours before their habitual bedtime and limit light exposure in the evening.

  • Keep sleep and 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 showed significant improvements in sleep/wake timings, including:

  • improved cognitive and physical performance in the mornings when tiredness is often very high in night owls

  • better eating habits

  • a decrease in depression and stress.

There was also a shift in peak performance times from evening to afternoon.

Study co-author Dr Andrew Bagshaw from the University of Birmingham's Centre for Human Brain Health says, “Having a late sleep pattern puts you at odds with the standard societal days, which can lead to a range of adverse outcomes — from daytime sleepiness to poorer mental wellbeing.”

Last reviewed 11 June 2019