For most of us, waking up early brings back haunting memories of early morning trips to the airport, or a blaring alarm clock signaling the start of a long work week. So, it’s no surprise that waking up early, for many, isn’t exactly something to smile about. But this may be the simplest way to curb your depression
“We have known for some time that there is a relationship between sleep timing and mood”
Scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder, the Broad Institute of MIT, and Harvard have found that winding back your alarm clock by one hour could significantly decrease your risk of major depression.
The recent study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, examined the relationship between chronotype—a person’s propensity to sleep at a certain time—and the risk of depression. What now represents one of the strongest pieces of evidence to support this relationship, scientists examined 840,000 individuals and found that those who woke just one hour earlier than normal were significantly less likely to experience a major depressive episode.
“We have known for some time that there is a relationship between sleep timing and mood, but a question we often hear from clinicians is: How much earlier do we need to shift people to see a benefit?” said senior author Celine Vetter, assistant professor of integrative physiology at CU Boulder. “We found that even one-hour earlier sleep timing is associated with significantly lower risk of depression.”
The study is also among the first to quantify just how much, or how little, change in sleep patterns is needed to enhance a person’s mental health.
Previous examinations of sleep patterns and depression have shown that early risers are more likely to feel happier than their night owl counterparts. According to a 2012 National Library of Medicine study, healthy adults who woke up early had a more positive state of mind than night owls.
The researchers involved with the JAMA Psychiatry study examined genetic data from over 840,000 individuals. To do this, lead author Iyas Daghlas, M.D., used data from the DNA testing company 23andMe and the biomedical database UK Biobank.
Using this, Daghlas was able to identify the nearly 340 genetic variants, including a genetic variant known as the ‘clock gene’ (PER2), that are thought to influence a person’s chronotype.
Scientists also used data from 85,000 individuals who had worn a sleep tracking device such as a watch or other wearable technology for 7 days and more than 250,000 sleep-preference questionnaires to understand, down to the hour, how genetic variants influence sleep.
Overall, about 33% of the participants identified as early risers, 9% identified as night owls, and the remaining group fell somewhere between the two. The average sleep mid-point was 3 a.m., meaning the average person fell asleep at 11 p.m. and woke up at 6 a.m.
With all the sleep data they needed in hand, researchers then turned their attention towards medical and prescription records. Coupled with surveys about previous mental health diagnoses, the researchers were able to compile data about major depressive episodes and tendencies between early risers and night owls.
What they found upon examination was that each one hour earlier sleep midpoint corresponded with a 23% decrease in the risk of major depressive disorders. This would mean that someone whose bedtime is typically 2 a.m. could significantly decrease their risk of major depression by simply going to bed at 1 a.m. Furthermore, this would mean that the same person could decrease their risk of depression by nearly 40% if they went to bed at midnight.
How Can Waking Up Early Lower Your Risk Of Depression?
While there is still much to understand about chronotypes and their relationship with major depression, there are some theories as to why waking up early could be beneficial.
Some research suggests that early risers get more sun than night owls and that waking up earlier would increase your time spent in sunlight, which is thought to have hormonal impacts that can influence mood.
“We live in a society that is designed for morning people, and evening people often feel as if they are in a constant state of misalignment with that societal clock,”
Other scientists have suggested that if our biological clock, known as the circadian rhythm, differs from others, then we can tend to feel depressed.
“We live in a society that is designed for morning people, and evening people often feel as if they are in a constant state of misalignment with that societal clock,” said Daghlas.
Daghlas and his colleagues point out that there is much more research that needs to be done to fully understand the relationship between chronotypes and depression. However, results from their studies suggest that waking early may have some positive effects on mental health.
What does this mean? Try setting your alarm clock back an hour on your next night’s sleep, you may just find yourself in a better mood when you wake up.
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