People who hate to miss a sunrise may have a lower risk of some chronic health problems, like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, than people who thrive on late nights and sleeping in, a new study suggests.
Differences in so-called sleep chronotypes — or natural sleep-wake cycles that program our body’s biological clock — have long been associated with the risk of a wide range of chronic health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, digestive disorders, and mental illness. But much of this research has focused on what happens when people can’t sleep when their body is naturally wired to do so — a common issue for shift workers.
In 2022, scientists examined data on almost 500,000 adults ranging in age from 38 to 73 who were part of the UK Biobank, an ongoing government-funded research project. All the participants were asked about their sleep habits and mental health and well-being, and they also completed a series of cognitive tests to assess brain function. A subset of about 40,000 people also had brain scans and lab tests to collect genetic information.
🔹People who got about seven hours of sleep each night had better cognitive outcomes than other participants, the analysis found.
🔹Longer or shorter periods of sleep each night were associated with a reduced ability to make decisions, solve problems, pay attention, process information, and learn new things.
🔹Seven hours a night was also ideal for mental health, the study found. Too much more or less sleep than this was associated with more symptoms of depression and anxiety and worse overall well-being.
Brain scans showed that people who got about seven hours of sleep each night had fewer structural changes in regions of the brain associated with cognitive processing and memory than study participants who got too little or too much sleep.
🔹Participants who consistently got about seven hours each night, without too much deviation from this pattern, had better cognitive function and mental health than people whose sleep patterns varied a lot or who got excessive or insufficient amounts of rest.
Another 2022 study took a different approach, focusing on people who do follow their natural sleep-wake cycles, also known as circadian rhythms. Scientists studied two distinct sleep chronotypes: 24 “early birds,” who were most alert in the mornings and tended to go to bed earlier, and 27 “night owls,” who were sharpest later in the day and tended to stay up late.
Overall, researchers found that the night owls had less ability to use fat for energy, meaning that fats accumulated in the body and increased the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
These metabolic differences can be explained by how well people with different sleep chronotypes use the hormone insulin to turn glucose, or the sugars in the blood from foods we eat, into energy that cells can burn immediately or store for later.
🔹The study found that the early birds used glucose more efficiently for energy than the night owls, allowing them to churn through this energy source and then burn stores of fat for energy too.
🔹By contrast, the night owls didn’t use glucose as efficiently or burn through as much of their fat stores.
“The differences in fat metabolism between ‘early birds’ and ‘night owls’ shows that our body’s circadian rhythm could affect how our bodies use insulin,” said the lead study author, Steven Malin, PhD, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology and health at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
“A sensitive or impaired ability to respond to the insulin hormone has major implications for our health,” Dr. Malin said.
🔹To get these results, researchers used advanced imaging to assess body composition, tested participants for insulin sensitivity, and used breath samples to measure fat and carbohydrate metabolism.
🔹Researchers also monitored activity levels, provided participants with all their meals to control energy intake, and conducted treadmill tests to determine their aerobic fitness levels.
🔹Early birds used more fat for energy both when they were at rest and during these exercise tests, the study found.
🔹Early birds were also more sensitive to insulin, meaning they were better at using this hormone to lower their blood sugar and more apt to burn fats for energy.
🔹Night owls were insulin resistant, meaning they needed more of this hormone to lower blood sugar levels and also tended to store more fats.
“This observation advances our understanding of how our body’s circadian rhythms impact our health,” Malin said. “Because chronotype appears to impact our metabolism and hormone action, we suggest that chronotype could be used as a factor to predict an individual’s disease risk.”
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