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Are You a Night Owl?

Night owls take note — there are studies that say your way of life isn’t the healthiest. A night owl, evening person or simply owl, is a person who tends to stay up until late at night.

Sleep deficits and poor-quality sleep have been linked to obesity and a myriad of health problems, but this study by University of Delaware researcher Freda Patterson and collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and the University of Arizona College of Medicine shows that when it comes to promoting healthy hearts, it’s not a matter of getting more sleep. It’s a matter of getting adequate sleep at optimal times.

Sleep Pattern Studies

A study from Germany, concluded that night owls suffer from sleep disturbances, vulnerability to depression and higher consumption of nicotine and alcohol, but more importantly, found differences in brain structure between night owls and early birds. The researchers, at RWTH Aachen University, wrote that 10 percent of people qualify as early birds and 20 percent as night owls with everybody else falling somewhere in between. Remarkably, the structural differences the investigators identified on brain scans might determine our natural tendencies toward being a particular “chronotype,” such as night owl or an early bird.

The researchers performed the scans on 16 early birds, 23-night owls and 20 individuals they identified as “intermediate chronotypes.” In the night owls, the scan images showed a reduction of the integrity of the brain’s white matter in areas of the brain associated with depression. This tissue, composed largely of fatty insulating material, speeds transmission of nerve signals.

This finding suggests the gene variants that skew some people’s internal clocks towards nocturnal living could affect brain structure and might have health implications.

Doing that seems to reduce the kind of behaviors – smoking, sedentary lifestyles and poor dietary choices – that put hearts in harm’s way.

The Purpose of Sleep

There are some who believe that sleep as a physiological function is upstream to these heart-healthy behaviors, said patterson, assistant professor of behavioral health and nutrition in the university’s college sciences. “if true, implication would be if we can modify central risk factor, might much better position leverage or our most stubborn cardiovascular behaviors such tobacco use.

The study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, examined the duration and approximate timing of sleep to see what patterns might be linked to the three prime suspects of cardiovascular trouble – smoking, poor diet and sedentary habits. Those three behaviors have been blamed for about 40 percent of cardiovascular deaths in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The study had an enormous pool of data with which to work, drawing from the United Kingdom’s Biobank Resource and a sample of 439,933 adults, between the ages of 40-69.  Participants in the UK study were asked about their physical activity, how much time they spent using a computer or watching TV on an average day, how many servings of fruits and vegetables they had each day and how many cigarettes they typically smoked in an average day.

What it found was startling.  Those who slept too much, too little, or went to bed late were all more likely to smoke, remain sedentary and eat fewer fruits and vegetables.

Sleep. Are You Getting Enough?

“These data suggest that it’s not just sleeping deprivation that relates to cardiovascular risk behaviors, but too much sleep can relate as well,” Patterson said. “Oftentimes, health messages say we need to get more sleep, but this may be too simplistic. Going to bed earlier and getting adequate sleep was associated with better heart health behaviors.”

The American Health Association reports that only 5-10 percent of adults meet ideal standards in diet, physical activity, and tobacco use. The rest of us have work to do.

“We know that people who are active tend to have better sleep patterns, and we also know that people who do not get their sleep are less likely to be active,” Patterson said. “A pressing question for practitioners and researchers is how do you leverage one to improve the other?”

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