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Night Owl Teens May Face Higher Risk of Asthma and Allergies

Teen staying up late

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Key Takeaways

  • Teenagers who prefer to stay up late and wake up late could have higher risk of more severe allergy and asthma symptoms.
  • This finding is similar to what's seen in adults, but experts aren't sure yet as to why.
  • Even if you're a night owl, cultivating solid sleep habits can improve sleep quality, which may help symptoms.

Teenagers who prefer to stay up late at night and wake up late in the morning—referred to as "night owls"—may experience more problematic allergy and asthma symptoms than those who get up early, a 2020 study suggests.

When you prefer to go to bed and wake up is called your chronotype, and in addition to night owls are "morning larks" who go to sleep early and wake early, and then the non-bird designation of "intermediate" who are between the larks and the owls.

Analyzing the data on 1,684 adolescents between ages 13 and 14, researchers noted that the owls reported higher levels of wheezing, more risk of asthma, and more respiratory symptoms overall. This remained true even when taking other allergy factors into consideration such as genetics, exposure to pets, and living in an urban area.

This is the first study to look at teens specifically when it comes to chronotype and allergies, but the researchers do note there were limitations—for example, the data was based on a questionnaire rather than sleep studies, which means they couldn't track sleep duration and activity. They also were unable to do blood cell counts or allergen-sensitivity tests as a way to measure allergy levels.

Even with that caveat, it's not the first study to link chronotype with health risks. Previous studies have noted that night owls tend to have higher risk of:

  • cardiac issues
  • metabolic disease
  • psychological disorders
  • respiratory disease
  • circadian rhythm issues

Not Just for Teens

Although the recent study focused on teenagers, sleep deprivation may affect adults in a similar way, says Mitchell Grayson, MD, advisor to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America and specialist in pediatric allergy, asthma and immunology at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

Mitchell Grayson, MD

Sleep is critical for almost all bodily functions, and lack of it is often associated with increased irritation, and reduced tolerance of allergy and asthma symptoms.

— Mitchell Grayson, MD

In other words, allergy and asthma symptoms may not be worse, it's just that having less patience or feeling stressed can make them seem more problematic.

But being the type who stays up late may also be a factor for adults as well as teens, according to a 2014 study in Chronobiology International. In that research, evening chronotypes also showed increased likelihood for respiratory symptoms and disease, including asthma. They were at higher risk, too, for wheezy breathing without infection and waking up with shortness of breath compared to morning types.

Better Sleep, Better Breathing

In terms of why both teens and adults who are night owls might have more breathing issues, that mechanism still remains largely unknown, says Grayson. It could have to do with levels of melatonin and cortisol, the hormones related to the drowsy-awake response, but more research needs to be done to determine the connection.

In the meantime, getting better quality sleep may be able to help. Sleep strengthens the immune system, and not only helps your mood, Grayson says, but also numerous functions like insulin sensitivity, hormone regulation, and even weight control. These can all play a part in improving allergy and asthma symptoms.

Even if it's challenging to convince a teen to get to bed earlier, there are still solid sleep habits that can make a difference, according to Michael Breus, PhD, clinical psychologist fellow the American Academy of Sleep Medicine:

  • Cut back or eliminate caffeine in the evening, including high-caffeine sodas and energy drinks
  • Discourage daily naps, particularly long ones.
  • Suggest a bedtime routine without screens, even if a teen goes to bed in the wee hours.
  • Get natural light in the morning (or early afternoon, depending on wakeup time), since that can help reset an internal body clock.
  • Have family wind-down time in the evening, which can help improve everyone's sleep.

Also, keep a log of worsening symptoms and when they're occurring, along with any lifestyle-related issues like other allergies.

What This Means For You

Changing up sleep habits can often be useful for improving allergy and asthma symptoms if a teen is struggling. But if they've made the switch and symptoms aren't improving, talk to your allergist or primary care doctor. If sleep is an issue, a sleep study might be useful to determine if there's an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

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