Set Your Alarm One Hour Earlier to Reduce Your Risk of Depression, Sleep Study Suggests

A small shift in your sleep schedule could help boost your mood by double digits.

You've heard about all the perks of being an early bird before, and it sounds great in theory, but realistically? It can seem impossible to make drastic changes in sleep habits and force yourself to be something you're not. But even if you don't consider yourself an early riser, take note: New research suggests it may be worth adjusting your sleep schedule pretty minimally—setting your alarm clock for just a bit earlier in the mornings—to help fend off depression and maintain a brighter, more balanced mood. The insight is especially helpful news if you're prone to mood dips or bouts of depression, or if this mental health disorder runs in your family.

And nothing crazy, either—all it takes is waking about one hour earlier to decrease one's depression risk, suggests the comprehensive genetic study, conducted by researchers at University of Colorado Boulder, the Broad Institute of MIT, and Harvard and published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. Scientists were able to gain new insights into concrete ways that individuals can actively change their sleep habits—or rather, their wakeup habits—in order to positively impact their own mental health. In other words: We all have more power than we think! And it doesn't involve going to bed at 7 p.m. and waking up at 4:30 a.m. (unless that's your thing, of course).

The research yielded some of the most striking evidence to date about how a person's chronotype—their individual tendency to sleep at a certain time—influences their mental health. Plenty of previous research corroborates the notion that sleep and mental health are strongly linked. For example, observational studies have previously found "that night owls are as much as twice as likely to suffer from depression as early risers, regardless of how long they sleep," per Science Daily. But CU Boulder scientists wanted to probe further into exactly how much of a sleep-time shift is needed to turn that around.

"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?" the study's senior author Celine Vetter, assistant professor of integrative physiology at CU Boulder said in a press release. "We found that even one-hour earlier sleep timing is associated with significantly lower risk of depression."

Genetics is known to explain 12 to 42 percent of one's sleep-timing preference, or chronotype. And over 340 common genetic variants (changes in a gene's DNA sequencing)—including the gene that plays a central role in determining circadian rhythm—are known to impact chronotype. So the study's lead author Iyas Daghlas, MD, analyzed the sleep-related genetic data of over 840,000 anonymous individuals using the DNA testing company 23 and Me and the biomedical database UK Biobank. 85,000 of the subjects had worn sleep trackers for seven days and 250,000 subjects had answered sleep-preference questionnaires. One key takeaway: The average sleep midpoint (the halfway point between bedtime and wake time) among subjects was 3 a.m., implying the average subject went to bed at 11 p.m. and got up at 6 a.m.

Researchers then assessed anonymous medical and prescription records and surveys about diagnoses of major depressive disorder. All of this with the hopes of answering the question: Do the genetic variants that predispose someone to being a "morning lark" have a lower risk of depression?" All signs point to yes.

According to Dr. Daghlas's statistical analysis, every "one-hour earlier sleep midpoint corresponded with a 23 percent lower risk of major depressive disorder." So if your usual bedtime is 12 a.m., you could potentially cut your depression risk by 23 percent if you started going to bed at 11 p.m. (and still slept for the same number of hours). What's even more incredible: If you bump your sleep time up by two hours (so 10 p.m. in the above scenario), your risk of depression decreases by nearly double: about 40 percent.

Researchers do note that it's still not totally clear if waking up even earlier offers significant benefits to people who are already way on the early-riser end of the spectrum. But for people who fall into the majority, intermediate/average range, the hour (or two!) time tweak could really be beneficial for quelling depression.

One word of advice is to start by waking up in small increments—10 or 15 minutes earlier at a time—working your way up to an hour. And in the meantime, on the other end of things, here are six nightly techniques to help you fall asleep more quickly as well as 11 healthy habits that can help you become a better sleeper.

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  1. Daghlas I, Lane JM, Saxena R, Vetter C. Genetically proxied diurnal preference, sleep timing, and risk of major depressive disorder. JAMA Psychiatry. 2021;78(8):903–910. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.0959

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