Does being a night owl make you fat?

Sleep deprivation and other sleep-related issues are often cited by tech-oriented people as major problems in their lives. But do sleep issues make you fat, too?

Image courtesy of Flickr user jordanfischer.

Sleep is an important factor in human health. Sleep deprivation and other sleep-related issues are often cited by tech-oriented people as major problems in their lives. If you don't believe me, ask the person in the next cubicle (or text another programmer or blogger working in sweatpants from home).

The nature of our work in the tech field often stresses us out. System failures and deadlines know no mercy. Staying ahead of the news cycle can be hard. If we aren't able to take advantage of the soothing nature of healthy sleep, and knit up that raveled sleeve of care, it's that much easier to get run down and become depressed, be irritable with the people we love, and have too little energy to exercise or make other improvements in our general state of being.

Sometimes we have a hard time getting to sleep.

Maybe that's because of too much electric light and screen exposure. Or it could be that we suffer from "just one more thing" syndrome -- where people just want to write one more blog entry, or one more line of code, or catch up on one more bit of reading, or click one more link, or even have a little fun and grind one more level of a videogame after a grinding day.

Sometimes we just can't get comfortable because our wrists and shoulders ache from typing and hunching over computers. Sometimes, we just can't shut off our brains.

Then, of course, there are the problems faced by new working parents. As Augustinian priest Rev. Leo J. Burke pointed out, "People who say they sleep like a baby usually don't have one." Presumably Rev. Burke was able to sleep better than most of his parishioners.

Sleep hygiene is notoriously hard for techies. We find it even more challenging than most "normal" people would to replicate a home environment resembling a candlelit turn-of-the century farmhouse in service to the pursuit of sleep. For many people in the creative class, sometimes creative juices don't start flowing until late afternoon. Days don't get started, in earnest, until after the sun goes down.

Sometimes we can't stay asleep once we get there. And many of us are "night people." Sometimes I think it's what draws us to fields where we might be able to work our own hours.

As a nurse, the night shift has always appealed to me.

I'm happily in tune with night-owl hours, where others might find working them to be a hardship. I appreciate the shift differential, which is slightly higher pay for night work. I feel I can provide an important service for patients -- after all, illness has no respect for schedule, and patients are just as sick in the night as they are during the day. Co-workers with children and family-related scheduling issues are also often very glad of colleagues who can make it possible for them to avoid working nights.

Really, I consider myself a natural night person. I always have been. I've worn my night person nature as a badge of honor, agreeing with Ambrose Bierce (to paraphrase) that dawn is when people of reason go to bed.

Certainly, ever since college, it's been my experience that dawn is when the fun-loving young people go to bed. I used to love going out with friends, catching some live music, hitting the diner afterward, and winding down right around when the sun was coming up. It seems like a lot of the really fun, youth-oriented stuff happens at night. This habit harkens back to ancient days when the young people of the tribe would stay up at night, gather together by the campfires, and stand guard duty with their superior night vision.

My personal weird sleep issue of late is that it seems that if I go to bed at a "normal" time (say 10 p.m.), I'm up after only four hours of sleep. No matter how desperate I am to get back to sleep, I can't seem to do it. This really stinks on days when I have to make it to an early morning appointment.

However, if I go to bed after 2 a.m. (or even as late as dawn) I can generally wake on my own at some point after 8 hours, feeling refreshed. That's just me. Of course, as F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, "It appears that every man's insomnia is as different from his neighbour's as are their daytime hopes and aspirations."

I just got a Zeo personal sleep coach device and I'm hoping that helps. It's a pretty neat piece of tech that I'm going to try out. I'll let you know how it goes. I'll be test driving it for about two weeks and blogging about it here on ZDNet Health.

Next: The heavy price of all-nighters »

« Previous: Getting to sleep

The heavy price of all-nighters

In the interest of disclosure, I must admit that one reason I've been waxing poetic about sleep is that I stumbled upon The Quote Garden's fun page of quotes about sleep, and that kind of created a monster.

In all seriousness, the real reason I'm talking about sleep today is that I read about a recent study by Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. The results, which are featured in Obesity Journal in an article entitled Role of Sleep Timing in Caloric Intake and BMI, indicate that night owls are at higher risk for obesity, ostensibly due to poor eating habits. More sugared sodas, an extra 248 calories per day, fewer fruits and veggies, and more fast food may add up to gaining an extra two pounds a month.

I have some thoughts and questions about the study, which I'll discuss briefly.

Correlation isn't causation. Perhaps there is a relationship between late sleepers and poor eating habits, but could it have to do with the fact that healthy grocery stores aren't open at night? Study co-author Kathryn Reid, PhD, says she isn't sure whether or not that might be a factor.

What lifestyle elements other than timing of sleep might also be involved? How much of this trend has to do with the upkeep of healthy routines, whatever the time of the day?

It feels to me like there's some value judgement inherent in the premise that there is a one-size-fits-all right relationship between the human body and the natural rhythms of the Earth, which causes there to be a right and a wrong time to sleep. I mean, granted, I'm not a professor of neurology or director of a sleep disorder center like study co-author Phyllis Zee, MD, PhD. I admit I'm not an academic expert on sleep and Circadian rhythms (although I've read many books about these topics into the wee hours). But at the same time, the idea rankles. Maybe it's even true, who knows? It just bothers me.

Along those lines, Dr. Zee also posits that night-shift workers eat at the wrong time of day related to their bodies' circadian rhythms which may increase risk for obesity as well as cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and gastrointestinal disorders.

I wonder if those increased risks could be (additionally or instead) attributed to stress and strain caused by working a schedule at odds with the rest of society, inability to purchase healthy foods during working or waking hours, difficulty leading a healthy social life because of shift schedules, decreased access to medical care and other daytime-centric business activities because of sleep times, etc.

Also, aren't three meals a day kind of an arbitrary social construct? Don't some experts recommend eating five to six small meals per day rather than three large ones, so that some food is ingested every few hours?

How does that come into play with the wrong-time eating idea? It seems to make sense to stop eating shortly after sundown if you're going to sleep in two to three hours. That way, you're not going to bed on a full stomach, and you don't experience reflux.  But if you're going to be up, you need to fuel your activity with nutrition, right?

With such emphasis on the norm, where does polyphasic sleep and napping fit into this? What about cultures who value later nights along with afternoon sleep or siestas and incorporate them into normal practice? Is there generally more obesity in those cultures?

The people who participated in the study were an average age of 30. The normal sleepers in the study woke by 8, and had breakfast by 9. But what normal person gets to live those old-school banker's hours?

Most normal white-collar people I know are at their desks by 8 a.m., and the normal blue-collar folks I know are at the jobsite by 7 a.m. This makes me wonder if some of the study participants were not "normal" in the sense that most normal people have to work for a living.

I'm sure many of our eating habits would be better if we could roll out of bed at the time others are sitting down at their workstations, and have a leisurely breakfast an hour later.  Perhaps in the afternoon it would be pleasant to hit the local health food market for some organic produce, or maybe to stop for a smoothie with a protein and vitamin boost on our way to the gym.

Next: Societal issues and prejudices »

« Previous: The heavy price of all-nighters

Which comes first, the late-night inclination or the late-night job?

What other aspects of socioeconomic status might play a part in this complex equation?

Not all night jobs come with a living wage or a shift differential. Sometimes a night job is a second job. Sometimes night jobs are the jobs marginalized people have to take. People with serious money woes might not be able to afford anything besides what they can get out of a vending machine, can't take time to prepare food at home, have no place to keep a packed lunch, and might not even get lunch breaks (but may still be able to get some energy from a sugar-and-caffeine laden soda while working).

Kelly Glazer Baron, PhD, one of the study's co-authors and a health psychologist and neurology instructor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine points out, "Late sleepers function in society by finding jobs where they can make their own hours, such as academics or consultants. They find niches where they can live this lifestyle, or they just get by with less sleep."

But, to my mind, these jobs are also fairly sedentary. So how much of this could simply be chalked up to not being physically active? Like other businesses, most gyms aren't open 24 hours.

Are night people who live in cities with more all-night gyms and grocery stores less likely to be overweight than night owls without access to these resources? Back when I lived about a block from Waikiki Beach, I was in super-great shape. I used to love taking a late night walk over to one of the two nearby open 24 Hour Fitness clubs, and stopping at the all night diner for some papaya with lemon afterward. Of course, lots of people told me I was crazy to walk alone at that hour. Many people wouldn't feel safe doing so.

Could some of the ill-effects of late night living be constructively solved? Could we do some out-of-the-box thinking? How can we create good eating and exercising strategies that would help us get around some of the pitfalls associated with living with unconventional schedules, rather than fostering further stigma? Making note of correlation is one thing. More well-if-you're-normal-how-nice-for-you type of reinforcement doesn't help solve anything, but it may send more people running to their local sleep clinic or for a prescription.

Finally, the study is behind a paywall. I haven't yet been able to get my hands on the study itself, only its press release and abstract. I did find over 40 articles and blog posts about the study. If you're in a "just one more click" sort of mood, read them all.

To be fair, some, or even all, of the questions I've asked may be addressed in the original work. What I did here was employ my critical thinking skills to the material I had at hand. I hope I don't sound aggressively critical. That's always a risk with the practice of critical thinking (which my nursing school professors encouraged -- but only up to a point).

I could go on. But I'll stop here, lest the serious academics involved with this study think I'm picking apart their life's work too obnoxiously. I do realize it's easier to criticize than create, especially when crankily ranting while nodding off after a late night.

I want to make it clear that I truly have great respect for the researchers, their credentials, and for the body of work to which they are contributing. I simply have some thoughts and some questions. My next step is to get in touch with their press liaison to get a more in-depth understanding of their analysis. If they get back to me, and they permit me to share, I'll let you know about their responses in another blog entry here at ZDNet Health.

See also: Is fat is the new normal? It’s time to say, “The weight is over!”

What do you think of the study? What kind of sleep are you having? Are you doing anything interesting to facilitate your sleep? Are you using technology to solve any sleep problems you may have? Tell us in the TalkBacks below. In the meantime, it's good night for me (and probably good morning to most of y'all).