Why 'night owls' may be at higher risk for disease

For nighttime dwellers, lack of nutritional options can have long-term health effects. <br data-cke-eol="1">

It’s gotten so late that it’s early. You’ve been nose-down working and forgot to get groceries before the store closed.

But that was hours ago and the only current options are those with bright neon sights beaming into the dead of night.

These are common scenarios for so-called night owls, the yin to the yang that are early birds. They’re typically awake when their neighbors are asleep.

But, unfortunately for our nighttime dwellers, those lack of nutritional options can have long-term health effects.


A new study looked at the negative health impacts of being a night owl, particularly by examining what they’re eating while awake during the wee hours of the morning.

The study, recently published in Advances in Nutrition, looked at available research and asked the question: Does when you go to bed affect your health? The short answer, according to the study authors, is yes it does.

The researchers — some of which are employees of food giant Nestle — focused on what’s known as a person’s chronotype. Your chronotype (or individual sleep pattern) is more commonly referred to as your circadian rhythm, or your sleep-wake cycles in relationship to the setting and rising of the sun.

The researchers examined available research on the health habits of daytime and nighttime people. They found, overall, that so-called night owls typically eat fewer fruits and vegetables and consume more “energy drinks, alcoholic, sugary, and caffeinated beverages, as well as higher energy intake from fat.”

A few observational studies (those regarded as having the least amount of accuracy) also show night owls are more likely to change what time they eat and skip meals — most often breakfast.


While the research definitely provides food for thought, it doesn’t suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between staying up late and eating poorly.

Like many other things in life, there are many more factors at play.

The life and diet of a night owl

Those “night owl” hours are also when grocery stores and healthier restaurants that offer food delivery are typically closed.

That often leaves only corner stores and fast-food restaurants as the last bastion of sustenance, which will inevitably offer worse food options: those higher in sugar, salt, and fat.

Samantha Morrison, a health and wellness expert for Glacier Wellness, says eating fatty and sugary foods late in the day require long digestion periods, which can cause unwanted weight gains, indigestion, and even increase the chances of having a stroke.

“One of the most devastating consequences being a night owl can have on a person’s health is the effect it has on maintaining healthy eating habits,” she told Healthline. “Eating a large meal in the evening can have a serious impact on your sleeping habits.”

Especially when that large meal is something like a hot dog, a bag of chips, and a fountain soda or a Mega burrito from the corner store. Along with those options are the beer in the back coolers and the tobacco behind the counter.

Those options, when plotted out on a timeline, typically create shorter lives filled with a lot of painful diseases.

But those who are more typically likely to work those hours — particularly freelancers, shift-workers, and those in the so-called “gig economy” — might not have another easy option.


Ben Taylor, founder of the advice portal for home workers and freelancers HomeWorkingClub.com, said one annoying thing about the chronotype research was that it seemed to suggest that being a night owl is a conscious choice, even describing it as a “preference.”

“As someone who’s been self-employed and working from home for many years, I am fortunate enough to be able to work around my own natural rhythms,” Taylor told Healthline. “While I can force myself onto a nine-to-five pattern, if left to its own devices, my mind and body always defaults back to night owl.”

Taylor says that the times that people wake and sleep have evolved, “and it doesn’t seem right that studies like this are reported on in a way that suggests night owls are making a poor lifestyle choice.”

For some, it’s simply not a choice.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says 9 percent of the U.S. workforce is still on the clock at 9 a.m. and 3 percent are still plugging away at 2 a.m.

Whether it’s working a graveyard shift in the back of an ambulance or living in one time zone and working in another, someone has to be awake when everyone else is getting those precious hours of sleep that line up with the sun’s daily setting and rising.

And some even prefer the night hours because it’s quieter and less crowded.

But knowing exactly how a night-owl lifestyle can negatively impact your health and increase your chances of certain preventable diseases is the first step in avoiding it.

Dr. Steven Zodkoy, director of Monmouth Advanced Medicine and author of Misdiagnosed: The Adrenal Fatigue Link, says the biggest reason night owls exist is an abnormal cortisol rhythm.

He says most people have higher levels of the hormone cortisol in the morning, but, chronically stressed people get that peak later in the day.

“Night owls typically will have a shift in the normal pattern,” Zodkoy told Healthline.

Essentially, the later the brain fully wakes up, the later it’s ready to settle down for the night.

That, Zodky says, can lead to poor sleep, fatigue, burnout, weight gain, anxiety, and other symptoms of “Type-A personality” traits.

To help minimize those effects, Zodky and others recommend exercise, relaxation, and other lifestyle changes. That includes the focus on food from the chronotype study.

Besides long-term preventable health effects, the cliché lifestyles of the night owl could have an immediate effect on your finances because you could end up making some poor mistakes.

Dr. Sujay Kansagra, Mattress Firm’s sleep health expert, says a variety of studies suggest night owls tend to do worse on a variety of measures, including school performance, self-regulation, risk-taking, and risk of mood disturbance.

He said the new research adds “another interesting dimension” to circadian science, some of which can likely be explained by the dietary choices for night owls.

“But the bottom line question is, why do night owls have a poor diet? This is no doubt due to the mismatch in their internal circadian rhythm with the external clock,” Kansagra told Healthline.

How night owls can protect themselves

The best thing you can do to avoid making impatient culinary decisions — especially if it’s late and you have a case of the “drunchies” — is to plan ahead.

That means going out to the grocery store during those daylight hours when everyone else might be there and stocking up on healthy snacks.

Baby carrots, bagged salads, rotisserie chickens, bananas, low-salt nuts, reduced-fat cheeses, whole grain crackers and bread can satisfy a lot of those late-night good mouthfeel snacks without adding unnecessary calories.

And, if you’re hankering for one more beer before bed, try picking up a 12-pack of canned bubbly water. Your brain gets the same refreshing feeling of cracking one last cold one with none of the alcohol.

But once the shift is over and it’s finally time to go to bed, people who could be considered a night owl — whether by choice, diet, or profession — can also make some simple changes to get better sleep.

Bill Fish, co-founder of Tuck.com, says the human circadian rhythm has evolved over millennium, but it changed when Thomas Edison invented the light bulb back in 1879.

“Until that time, humans woke up with the rise of the sun to either hunt or tend to the fields,” he told Healthline. “We then rested when it became dark.”

So, while you’re fighting eons of evolution and sleeping during the day, Fish recommends creating “a sleep sanctuary” with shades that blackout windows and a white noise machine to ensure you are allowing your body to naturally rest properly.

Other than that, it’s important to be mindful of what your body is trying to tell you.

“Monitor your diet to ensure you are consuming three quality meals per day,” Fish said, “and continue to do everything possible to monitor your health.”

This article first appeared on HealthLine.com

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