Of course, the reality of these people who prefer to stay up late isn’t nearly as mysterious or poetic as all that, as many night owls would rather spend their late night hours in front of their favorite streaming service rather than aimlessly roaming the streets, but it does make for a nice image, no?
Well, while night owls may be a far cry from comic book vigilantes, a study has found that late sleepers have nevertheless chosen a life of great danger, as they are twice as likely to suffer from psychological disorders, 30% more likely to develop diabetes, 25% more likely to have neurological disorders, 23% more likely to suffer from GI ailments, 22% more likely to have respiratory problems, and finally- 10% more likely to die prematurely.
Can all of this be chalked down to a lack of vitamin D? It’s a little bit more complicated than just that. To understand why night owls incur all of these health risks, we must first understand that staying up late isn’t just a matter of choice.
Did you ever forget to turn your alarm on and managed to wake up miraculously on time? Well, it’s not magic, it’s biology. In most living organisms on Earth, including fungi and plants, biologists have observed the workings of an embedded clock. This may sound like some sort of science fiction hyperbole, but it isn’t: we really do have a biological clock. The circadian clock, as it’s more accurately termed, is located in our brain, within the hypothalamus, a region in our brain that is located near the optic chiasma, the part of the brain that connects our eyes to the brain. This is crucial because our clock uses light cues to regulate our daily cycle.
That cycle, scientifically termed the circadian rhythm, informs us about when we should wake up, when we should rest and when we should eat and drink. But just because we all have a cycle doesn’t mean it’s the same for all of us. In different people, the clock is set up differently, meaning they receive these cues at different times of the day. These different setups are called chronotypes, and they aren’t a matter of preference. In other words, people who prefer to stay up late and wake up late do so because they are geared to do so, and that is the best way for them to operate.
So why are they rewarded with all of these health risks for the simple act of listening to their internal clock? The problem is that many people with the late sleeping chronotype are trying to both live according to their rhythm, and according to the expectations of a morning-geared society: they wake up bright and early to get to work, where they are required to punch in around 9 and out at 5, meaning they spend the hours when they are least efficient doing work. They then go home and stay awake until around 2 AM. And it’s not just sleeping deprivation that’s doing them in, either.
Think of what happens when you’re jet-lagged: your circadian clock can’t reconcile the sensory information that it receives about the time of day with what it feels *should* be the time of day. Consequently, you may feel fatigued but incapable of sleep, lose your sense of appetite and more. Night owls who work “normal” day shifts are effectively perpetually jet-lagged as they force themselves to be awake at hours their clock is telling them they should be tucked in bed. So what’s the solution?
The easy fix is to recalibrate our circadian clock to adhere to a morning person’s schedule by going to bed early and rising early and sticking to this routine (here's a more thorough guide on how to accomplish this). But such a conversion might not come as easily to everyone, and some night owls bristle at the idea that they should adjust their entire lifestyle to the tyranny of morning jobs, that most offices would rather have all employees punch in at the same time, regardless of how effective they are at that time of day, than allow more freedom in setting shifts up.
Whether societal change is possible is doubtful, but night owls may benefit from switching to a more flexible job that allows afternoon shifts or, if all else fails, try to fight their chronotype and become morning people. After all, what’s at stake is far more than their employability and personal freedom: it’s their health and lives.