New Research Reveals Health Benefits of Waking One Hour Earlier

A small shift in sleep time can help boost your mood exponentially

Michele DeMarco, PhD
Elemental
Published in
3 min readAug 9, 2021

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Woman at dawn in a wheat field with the sun coming up
Image: Artur Aldyrkhanov/Unsplash

When it comes to sleep, it can seem the world is divided into “Larks” and “Owls”. Larks are those who bound out of bed at the first glimmer of dawn, whereas owls just get going when darkness sets in.

We often assume that these labels are immutable. I think of my mother who still needs her “tup of toffee,” as I called it at three years old, before she can have a coherent conversation after rising, or conversely my father who happily got up with me at 5:30am on Christmas morning to inspect Santa’s gifts.

“You’re not going to change me now,” both would say decades later, still prone to their lark- and owlish inclinations — and they would probably be right, at least by instinct. Up to forty percent of our sleep-timing preference — or sleep chronotype — is determined by genetics.

But new genetic research at the University of Boulder and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard shows that not only can a person shift their sleep time, but also that doing so even one hour earlier, especially for “night owls”, can help to fend off depression and maintain a brighter, more balanced mood.

The science of sleep

Research has known for some time that there is a relationship between sleep and mood. For example, observational studies have found that night owls are up to twice as likely to suffer from depression as “morning larks”, regardless of how long they sleep. But until now, no could answer why, in part because mood disorders themselves can disrupt sleep patterns. Researchers have also been hard-pressed to determine how much of a shift in time would be needed to see a benefit.

Iyas Daghlas, M.D., a researcher associated with Harvard Medical School, sought to answer these questions. He and his colleagues analyzed data from the DNA testing company 23 and Me of nearly 840,000 adults using Mendelian randomization, a method that looks at cause-and-effect genetic associations.

The findings were striking: those with a genetic predisposition to early rising also had a lower risk of depression. Specifically, each one-hour earlier sleep…

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Michele DeMarco, PhD
Elemental

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t. micheledemarco.com