Benjamin Franklin once said, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
But surely this is yet another instance of the Man keeping us down? Growing scientific evidence suggests that some of us are hardwired to be night owls, and we’re being forced to adjust to an early-morning society. As a result, evening people are massively sleep deprived, and their overall health suffers.
“The doom-and-gloom headlines about night owls has to do with them being sleep deprived, because they’re trying to conform to our societal preference for early birds,” explains Terry Cralle, certified clinical sleep educator and author of Sleeping Your Way to the Top: How to Get the Sleep You Need to Succeed. “The key issue is sufficient sleep—good mental and physical health can be maintained if night owls are able to get the sleep that they need on a consistent basis.”
But there’s little evidence that society will actually make these necessary shifts—both school and work still start too early—and late risers will continue to fall ill as a result. Here then are the many ways being a night owl in a world built for morning people will wipe you out…
You Become Sad
As if being sleep deprived weren’t enough, a 2009 study found that depression is three times more likely in night owls than in early birds. More recently, a 2014 study discovered that late sleepers have less dense “white matter” (tissue that affects learning and brain functions) in the areas of the brain associated with depression, which makes processing emotions extremely difficult. Researchers think this is a side effect of chronic jet-lag, which later risers are believed to suffer from. But for those night owls who somehow maintain a sufficient sleep schedule, Cralle has another likely explanation: “This can be attributed to less exposure to sunlight, causing a vitamin D deficiency, which can lead to depression.”
You Turn Evil
Yep, you read that right: A 2013 study found that self-described night owls score higher on the ominously-named Dark Triad spectrum, suggesting that late sleepers are more likely to be narcissistic, manipulative and psychopathic. These researchers hypothesize that night owls are actually evolutionarily-programmed to be evildoers, since it’s much easier to commit crimes at night, when the majority of the population is fast asleep. But it’s also possible that this is simply another side-effect of chronic jet-lag: I mean really, everyone’s a little more evil when they haven’t had enough sleep.
You Bang Less
This one is a major bummer: Recent research found that men who work the night shift—e.g., doctors, police, firefighters and truck drivers—have significantly lower sperm counts and testosterone levels (which, in turn, results in lower libido) than daytime workers. The researchers believe that too little (or too much) sleep negatively affects hormone levels and genes, which reduces sperm and testosterone production.
Of course, finding a compatible mate can also be tricky as a night owl. “Mixing owls and larks in a relationship can lead to trouble,” Cralle points out. She’s right: Few things end a relationship quicker than star-crossed screw schedules (but then again, you may be able to find a compromise).
You Gain Weight
A 2017 study suggests that morning people choose to follow healthier diets than late sleepers, generally consuming less sugar and fat (larks also stick to more regular eating schedules). But once again, society is to blame: “Evening types are more prone to live against their internal biological time,” lead author Mirkka Maukonen told the New York Times. “Our society is pretty much structured to suit morning types better.” For instance, night owls are less likely to make themselves a healthy breakfast as they rush to morning meetings, mainlining coffee instead in an attempt to make up for the fact that they only got three hours of sleep.
You Die Sooner
Welp, this is officially a societal epidemic: A new study of 433,268 adults found that night owls have a 10 percent higher risk of premature death—from all causes—than early birds. The same study found that late sleepers are also more likely to smoke, drink and use illegal drugs (studies specifically show that groggy mornings increase tobacco cravings). Combine that with the above-mentioned ailments, and you have an explanation for why night owls go into the grave sooner than morning people.
Now, it isn’t all bad for night owls: Numerous studies have reported that they have higher IQs and greater general intelligence (reasoning, conceptualizing and analytical thinking) than early risers. But still, it’s about time society gave night owls a break. “It’s estimated that a quarter of the population has the night owl genetic trait,” Cralle emphasizes. “Family members, teachers, businesses and recruiters need to understand that this isn’t about laziness or a lack of work ethic.”
So just give us five more minutes to get our lives together at that 8:30 meeting, will you?