'Night owls' face increased diabetes risk, report shows

Study of nurses shows that late risers are more likely to have an unhealthy lifestyle

Being an 'evening person' or a 'night owl' increases the risk of diabetes by 19 per cent, compared to being an 'early bird', research suggests. PA
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A major study has revealed that self-described “night owls” are more prone to developing diabetes than the wider population.

Scientists found that people's “chronotype” – or circadian preference – has a significant impact on their health, with those preferring to stay up late said to be a fifth more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

Tianyi Huang, an associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospitals’ Channing Division of Network Medicine in the US, said: “Chronotype, or circadian preference, refers to a person’s preferred timing of sleep and waking and is partly genetically determined so it may be difficult to change.

“People who think they are ‘night owls’ may need to pay more attention to their lifestyle because their evening chronotype may add increased risk for Type 2 diabetes.”

The researchers analysed data from about 64,000 women from the Nurses’ Health Study II – which is among the largest investigations into the risk factors for major chronic diseases in women in the US – collected from 2009 to 2017.

It included self-reported sleeping habits, diet, weight and body mass index (BMI), sleep timing, smoking behaviour, alcohol use, physical activity and family history of diabetes.

The team also examined medical records to see if the women had diabetes.

Of those taking part in the study, 11 per cent reported having a definite evening chronotype and about 35 per cent reported a definite morning chronotype.

The rest were labelled as intermediate, meaning they identified as neither a morning nor an evening person.

After accounting for lifestyle factors, evening chronotype was associated with a 19 per cent increased risk of diabetes, the researchers said.

Among those with the healthiest lifestyles, only 6 per cent had evening chronotypes, compared with 25 per cent of night owls who reported having unhealthy lifestyles.

Evening people were also more likely to drink alcohol in higher quantities, have a low-quality food diet, get fewer hours of sleep per night, currently smoke, and have weight, BMI and physical activity rates in the unhealthy range, the team added.

Dr Sina Kianersi, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Channing Division of Network Medicine, said: “When we controlled for unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, the strong association between chronotype and diabetes risk was reduced but still remained, which means that lifestyle factors explain a notable proportion of this association.”

The association between evening chronotype and diabetes risk was stronger in nurses who worked day shifts as opposed to night shift workers, “suggesting that more personalised work scheduling could be beneficial”, according to the researchers.

Scientists are now planning to investigate the genetic causes of chronotype and its association with heart disease.

“If we are able to determine a causal link between chronotype and diabetes or other diseases, physicians could better tailor prevention strategies for their patients,” Dr Kianersi said.

The findings are published in the journal the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Updated: September 12, 2023, 4:21 AM