Waking up earlier could slash depression risk, even for night owls

Getting up an hour earlier in the morning may substantially reduce your risk of developing major depression, according to a new study from the University of Colorado at Boulder. The findings were based on the analysis of a huge body of data, including genetic information from 23andMe, sleep wearable data, and more.

The study, which also involved researchers from Harvard and the Broad Institute of MIT, involved data on 840,000 people, including those who tend to get up early, those who identify as 'night owls,' and people who tend to fall somewhere between the two. According to the study, a person's natural tendency to go to sleep at certain times influences their risk of depression — as does modifying their sleep schedule.

A number of past studies have found that people who get up early in the morning are substantially less likely to experience depression, while night owls (people who stay up late and wake up late) are much more likely than their early-riser counterparts to develop depression. The link between these sleep schedules and depression hasn't been entirely clear, however, because someone who is depressed may then experience a disrupted sleep cycle.

This new study, which is far more substantial in size, helps answer that question using genetic data, among other things. The researchers linked genetic variants that make someone more likely to be an early riser with a decreased risk of developing depression. Though they say it isn't yet clear whether an early riser may benefit from getting up even earlier, the findings did indicate that everyone else may benefit from getting up an hour or two earlier than usual.

This would require shifting one's bedtime back, as well, so that someone who normally goes to bed at 2 AM and gets up at 9 AM may instead go to bed at 1 AM and get up at 8 AM. Shifting the sleep duration back one hour was linked with a 23-percent decrease in depression risk, while shifting it back two hours boosted that percentage to 40-percent.

The researchers note that a large randomized clinical trial will need to be conducted to firmly say whether getting up earlier can help protect against depression.