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Night owls at greater risk of heart disease and diabetes

September 29, 2022

People who stay up later could be at a greater risk of heart disease and diabetes than early birds.

So called 'night owls' could be putting themselves at a greater risk of heart disease and diabetes than those who rise earlier in the day

New research from Rutgers University in New Jersey has revealed that those who rise early in the day rely more on fat as an energy source, and are often more active during the day, than those who stay up later, meaning fat builds up more easily in night owls and leads to a variety of health issues.

It is hoped that the findings may prove valuable in helping to explain why night owls are at greater risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and may also aid doctors in identifying patients earlier who are more likely to develop the conditions.

The researchers divided 51 obese middle-aged adults into early birds and night owls, depending on their answers to a questionnaire on sleeping and activity habits.

They then monitored the volunteers’ activity patterns for a week and tested their bodies’ fuel preferences at rest and while performing moderate or high-intensity exercise on a treadmill.

The team found that early birds were more sensitive to blood levels of the hormone insulin and burned more fat than night owls while at rest and during exercise. Meanwhile, the night owls were less sensitive to insulin and their bodies favoured carbohydrates over fat as an energy source.

Writing in Experimental Physiology, Professor Steven Malin said it was unclear why differences in metabolism were seen in night owls and early birds. One possibility, he believes, is a mismatch between the time people go to bed and wake the next morning and the circadian rhythms that govern their body clocks.

The findings could affect discussions around the health risks of night shift work and even changing the clocks to suit daylight hours. “If we promote a timing pattern that is out of sync with nature, it could exacerbate health risks,” Malin said. “Whether dietary patterns or activity can help attenuate these is an area we hope becomes clear in time.”

Related: ‘Light’ sleepers risk heart disease

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