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Waking Up Just An Hour Earlier Linked To Lower Risk Of Depression, Says Study

There is a strong link between sleep and depression. Recently, a new genetic study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry has shown that waking up just an hour earlier in the morning can reduce the risk of major depression by 23 per cent.

The study was conducted by the researchers of the University of Colorado Boulder and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, on 840000 individuals. This is considered to be among the first studies to quantify how a small change in the sleep-wake cycle or circadian cycle can influence mental health to a great extent. [1]

In this article, we will discuss the details of the study. Take a look.

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About The Study

According to the study, a person's chronotype can strongly influence the risk of depression in them. Chronotypes are behavioural templates of a person's circadian circle which is a natural internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle following a 24-hour pattern.

All humans have different chronotypes and these determine how different individuals function best at different times of the day.

If we talk about the recent COVID-19 pandemic, there have been a lot of changes in the sleeping schedule of people due to factors like lockdown, working remotely, online classes, isolation, stress, illness, financial insecurities and many others. [2]

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According to Celine Vetter, the senior author of the study and assistant professor of integrative physiology at CU Boulder, the relationship between sleep timing and mood was well-established by previous studies, however, how much earlier do people need to shift their sleep-wake cycle to see a benefit was not determined in those studies.

This study gives an idea that shifting the sleep timing to one hour earlier or say, sleeping even one hour earlier compared to your normal sleep timing can significantly lower the risk of depression.

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Previous Studies

Earlier, in 2018, Vetter published a cross-sectional study saying that chronotype is a predictor of depression risk in middle-to-older aged women. It says that "early risers" are at 27 per cent lower risk of developing depression compared to "night owls", irrespective of how long they sleep. The study was carried out on 32479 nurses across a follow-up of four years. [3]

The study remained contradictory and needed future evaluation as it was independent of the data related to environmental and genetic factors, which also plays a major role in understanding the chronotype.

To know details on this one-hour shifting of the timing, another lead author Iyas Daghlas turned to genetic data and used a method called Mendelian randomization to determine the association between genetic variations, how much change in sleep duration and its effects.

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Does Genetics Determine Our Sleep Timing Preference?

The study adds that there are more than 340 common genetic variants, including variants in the "clock gene" PER2 that determines an individual's chronotype and sleep pattern. This variation in the genes accounts for 12-42 per cent of sleep timing preference.

To get a bigger picture of how genetics affect the sleep-wake cycle, the researchers assessed de-identified genetic data of 850000 individuals.

As per the results, a third of them self-identified themselves as "morning larks", while nine per cent were found to be "night owls" and the rest were in the middle.

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Their average sleep midpoint was 3:00 am, meaning they sleep at around 11:00 pm and wake up at around 6:00 am.

Then, researchers evaluated additional data that included genetic information, along with the candidates medical and prescription reports and surveys on their major depressive symptoms.

The question that has arisen is "Do those with genetic variants who predispose them to be early risers are also at lower risk of depression?"

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The answer was "yes" as even in people with genetic variations, who have kept one hour earlier sleep midpoint, corresponding to 23 per cent lower risk of major depressive disorder.

Meaning, if someone goes to bed at around 12 am, instead of 1:00 am and wakes up at 6:00 am, they could cut the depression risk by 23 per cent, while those going to bed at 11:00 pm, can cut the depression risk by 40 per cent.

The study was helpful for those who probably fall under the intermediate to evening range. However, it was unclear that people who are already early risers could benefit more from waking up even earlier or not.

What Could Be The Cause Of This Effect?

Waking up early in the morning exposes individuals to greater light during the day, compared to those who wake up late. This causes a range of hormonal impacts that positively affect the mood and mental health of a person.

According to a study, our body's circadian cycle is naturally designed in a way to wake in the morning and sleep during the night. Light is an important external or environmental key in maintaining the circadian system function well and affects sleep duration. Lack of exposure to natural daylight can lead to chronic depression in people while its presence can enhance wakefulness and sleep quality. [4]

Therefore, Vetter advises people wanting to shift themselves to an earlier sleep schedule. She said, "Keep your days bright and your nights dark", "Have your morning coffee on the porch. Walk or ride your bike to work if you can, and dim those electronics in the evening."

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To Conclude

From the aforementioned, it can be concluded that early risers are at a lower risk of depression, however, this does not mean that all late sleepers and later risers will develop depressive symptoms.

A person's genetic or chronotype is associated with depression, however, in a small amount which could be modified when a person makes an effort to change their lifestyle and introduce a proper sleep-wake cycle early to bed and early to rise.

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