It’s back! Everybody’s favorite life disruption: Daylight Saving Time (DST). At 2am this coming Sunday morning, March 12, we are instructed to “spring” our clocks one hour “forward” to synch with the artificial time change.
While this practice was originally meant as a way to build more sunlight into the course of a human’s days, for purposes mostly related to work and safety, it has its share of downsides.
The biggest one, it turns out, is sleep deprivation.
It’s only one hour
The saying goes that, by setting our clocks forward, we’ll lose one hour of sleep. So what’s the big deal?
First of all, losing one hour of sleep has repercussions for our circadian rhythms, which are tied to the light-dark cycles of the planet, rather than some artificial alteration in the human agenda. links
It’s not the time, it’s the light
Our bodies and brains are synched to something much bigger than the time beaming off the iPhone display.
All living beings have biological rhythms which are synched to the patterns of light from sunrise to sunset. These rhythms include more than just sleep, but other important processes like cellular healing, digestion, and metabolism. The presence of sunlight is what synchronizes our bodies, day in and day out, and not the human invention of clocks and timekeeping.
When we change our sleep-wake schedules by even one hour, we may think we are fooling these rhythms into thinking the day has already started. In fact, the body is going to feel that loss as a temporary period of sleep deprivation.
Because the circadian system is a deeply entrained part of our biology, it will take between one day and one week for the body to reset itself to this new rhythm, maybe even longer if you are a night owl. For those with chronic illness (such as diabetes), there may be additional concerns and consequences to address.
The cost of DST
There are consequences when humans agree to “lose an hour of sleep” by shifting their schedules globally. You can expect an increase in motor vehicle crashes, for instance. Research shows a spike in car accidents due to sleep loss and morning sleepiness on the Monday after DST.
There’s also evidence of a higher risk for making mistakes on the job, an uptick in workplace accidents, and a general dip in mood, with people feeling cranky, sluggish, or unfocused. Also significant are the greater rates of stroke and heart attack that follow the time change.
Our circadian rhythms change naturally
The first day of Spring occurs, ironically, just eight days after DST commences this year. On March 20, the vernal equinox marks the midway point between the darkest, shortest day of the year and the lightest, longest day of the year. Our bodies, if allowed to keep time-keeping devices set at the same time, would eventually, gradually, make this adjustment on their own.
Thankfully, we don’t have to succumb to temporary sleep deprivation if we don’t want to.
How to prepare for the time change
We only “lose an hour of sleep” if we don’t thoughtfully prepare for the time change. Here are some options to consider.
If you regularly go to bed at the same time every night
Simply start tonight by going to bed 15 minutes earlier, continuing every night forward until Sunday night. In example, if your normal bedtime is 11pm, then tonight, go to bed at 1045pm. Tomorrow night, go to bed at 1030pm. Friday night, go to be at 1015pm. Saturday night? 10pm. Sunday night, you will go to bed at your “new” time of 11pm, which is actually the same as 10pm from the night before.
This gradual shifting of your schedule by 15-minute intervals will help your circadian system naturally reset and survive the time change without much in the way of overall sleep deprivation.
If your nightly bedtime schedule is all over the map
You may wish to rethink those habits entirely. When bedtimes and rise times fluctuate wildly, your habits have likely already reinforced an ongoing pattern of sleep deprivation.
Why not use DST as a chance to change that? Start by picking (and sticking to) a regular bedtime and rise time schedule. At the very least, you will eventually reset your rhythms, over time, to a steady and regular pattern when you know you will be achieving a proper amount of sleep (at least 7 hours, but ideally, around 8 hours is best, night after night).
If your bedtime is determined by external demands like work or caregiving
You may not have much of a choice if you job demands odd hours or you are a parent of very small children or taking care of elderly loved ones, whose nighttime behaviors may directly impact your decisions about your own sleep habits.
Taking short naps prior to the time change, and any time you are feeling tired following the time change, can help you recuperate lost sleep.
However, if you don’t have to stick to a morning schedule on the following Monday morning, sleep in. It can also help to open your curtains or blinds the night before so that when the sun rises, your body will sense the sunlight and respond to it by waking naturally.
For best results in any situation, practice good sleep hygiene
Good sleep hygiene can make your sleeping life a lot easier and healthier. It includes a few simple practices.
- Keep your room dark, cool, and quiet.
- Put away all handheld electronic devices an hour before bedtime.
- Avoid heavy meals at dinnertime and don’t eat right before bed.
- Late afternoon caffeine and alcohol as a “nightcap” should be avoided, as both compromise one’s ability to fall asleep (caffeine) or to stay asleep (alcohol).
- Nicotine use can also lead to both problems, so skip the bedtime smoke.
- Use LED-free nightlights in your bathroom so you can avoid turning on lights in darkness, should you need to use the bathroom in the early hours.
The more your prioritize sleep as important and necessary to good overall health, the easier it will be to survive the upcoming time change.
Learn more about the rationale behind the purpose of Daylight Saving Time.
Learn more about why keeping circadian rhythms in balance is so important at the Sleeptember® Forum.