If you’re trying to live a healthier life and resist the temptation to gobble down that extra piece of chocolate cake tonight and then blow off your workout tomorrow morning…here’s a tip from the world of behavioral health science—go to sleep…earlier.
While lifestyle change is never easy, there’s growing evidence that becoming less of a night owl and more of a morning lark is a good place to start. Hitting the sack earlier may not only help you get more sleep—a healthy thing in itself—but also make it easier to achieve other healthy lifestyle changes.
You’ve heard of gateway drugs. But an earlier bedtime may be the opposite…a gateway to healthier behavior.
Yes, you can change. Here’s why you should—and how.
BODY CLOCKS, WATCHING TV AND WHAT YOU ATE LAST NIGHT
It’s already well known that getting too little sleep, on a chronic basis, is strongly associated with an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other disorders. What the new research found is that when you hit the hay is linked with three other behaviors that are major risk factors for disease.
The study, published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, which analyzed data from 440,000 British adults, found that those who characterized themselves as “morning people” compared with “evening people” ate 25% more fruit and 13% more vegetables…and spent less time on sedentary activities such as watching TV (about 20 fewer minutes a day) and computer screens (about eight fewer minutes a day). “Morning people” also were 60% less likely to be smokers.
CAN BECOMING A LARK LEAD TO HEALTHIER HABITS?
While the study does not show cause and effect, the study’s lead author, Freda Patterson, PhD, assistant professor of health promotion in the department of behavioral health and nutrition at University of Delaware, believes there are good reasons to think that poor sleep habits lead to poor lifestyle habits—not the other way around.
One reason is a body of research about how people use time. People who go to bed later, Dr. Patterson noted, tend to have expanded evening recreation time, which might involve eating less healthy foods late at night and staying on the computer late at night. (Ask yourself—are you more likely to be eating fruits and veggies during the day…or late at night in front of the TV? Are those extra hours at the end of the day likely to be the ones in which you’re exercising?)
Physiology plays a role, too. If you’ve had too little sleep, you may feel sluggish and need an energy boost in the evening…and eating sugary foods may feel like just the ticket. Smokers might get a similar lift from nicotine. Inadequate sleep is also related to stress and anxiety, added Dr. Patterson, which people might “treat” with these bad habits.
A good goal may be to shift your bedtime a half-hour earlier in five- to 10-minute increments, said Dr. Patterson. You’ll likely spend less time watching screens and munching, and you may find you have more energy the next day to resist food temptations, eat healthier and be more physically active. “If we can get people to improve sleep, it may percolate to also improve these other risk behaviors,” says Dr. Patterson. “Sleep may be the behavior that could facilitate improvements in cardiovascular and metabolic health.”
BECOMING AN EARLIER BIRD
A habit of staying up too late is sometimes called “sleep procrastination,” but it can also go by the formal medical term—“delayed sleep phase disorder.” To help reset your clock, try the tips in these Bottom Line articles…
- Create your own one-week self-guided program as outlined in “Sleep Procrastination—Don’t Lose Sleep Over This Bad Habit.”
- Try to get bright sunshine soon after waking up, or use bright light therapy, as outlined in “Light Therapy: The 15-Minute Secret to Sleeping Better (It Boosts Energy and Mood, Too).”
- Consider supplemental melatonin—but use it the right way. While the “sleep hormone” is often overused as an everyday sleep aide (there are better alternatives), it is particularly effective at helping to shift sleep/wake cycles in the short-term. The trick is to use a tiny dose early in the evening rather than a larger one right before bedtime, as explained in “Fall Asleep Faster By Resetting Your Inner Clock.”
For more tips on getting a good night’s sleep, see Bottom Line’s “Guide to Better Sleep—No Sleeping Pills Needed.”