As clocks march ahead and daylight saving time begins, there can be anxiety around losing an hour of sleep and how to adjust to this change.
Usually an hour seems like an insignificant amount of time, but even this minimal loss can cause problems. There can be significant health repercussions of this forcible shift in the body clock.
Springing forward is usually harder that falling backward. Why?
The natural internal body clock rhythm in people tends to be slightly longer than 24 hours, which means that every day we tend to delay our sleep schedules. Thus, “springing forward” goes against the body’s natural rhythm. It is similar to a mild case of jet lag caused by traveling east – in which you lose time and have trouble falling asleep at an earlier hour that night.
Even though it’s technically just one hour lost due to the time change, the amount of sleep deprivation due to disrupted sleep rhythm lasts for many days and often throws people off schedule, leading to cumulative sleep loss.
We lead a sleep evaluation center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and regularly see patients who are dealing with sleep loss and internal clocks that are not synchronized with external time. Our experience has shown us that it’s important to prepare, as much as possible, for the time shift that occurs every spring.
Consequences of sleep loss vary
Many studies have demonstrated that there is an increased risk of heart attack, stroke and high blood pressure associated with sleep deprivation. Workplace injuries increase and so do automobile accidents. Adolescents often find it harder to wake up in time to get to school and may have difficulties with attention and school performance or worsening of mental health problems.
Is there something to be done to help to deal with this loss of sleep and change of body clock timing?
Of course. The first step is increasing awareness and using the power of knowledge to combat this issue. Here are some quick tips to prepare yourself for the upcoming weekend.
Do not start with a “sleep debt.” Ensure that you and, if you’re a parent, your child get adequate sleep on a regular basis leading up to the time change each year. Most adults need anywhere from seven to nine hours of sleep daily to perform adequately. Children have varying requirements for sleep depending on their age.
Prepare for the time change. Going to bed – and for parents, putting your kids to bed – 15 to 20 minutes earlier each night in the week preceding the time change is ideal. Having an earlier wake time can help you get to sleep earlier. Try to wake up an hour earlier than is customary on Saturday, the day before the time change. If you have not been able to make any changes to your sleep schedule in advance, then keep a very consistent wake time on weekdays as well as weekends to adjust to the time change more easily.
Use light to your advantage. Light is the strongest cue for adjusting the internal body clock. Expose yourself to bright light upon waking as you start getting up earlier in the week before daylight saving time. If you live in a place where natural light is limited in the morning after clocks change, use bright artificial light to signal your body clock to wake up earlier. As the season progresses, this will be less of an issue as the sun rises earlier in the day.
At night, minimize exposure to bright light and especially the blue light emitted by the screens of electronic media. This light can shift your body rhythm and signal your internal clock to wake up later the next day. If your devices permit, set their screens to dim and emit less blue light in the evening.
In some geographic locations, it might be helpful to have room-darkening curtains at bedtime depending on how much sunlight your room gets at bedtime. Be sure to open the curtains in the morning to allow the natural morning light to set your sleep-wake cycle.
Carefully plan your day and evening activities. The night before the time change, set yourself up for a good night’s sleep by incorporating relaxing activities that can help you wind down, such as reading a book or meditating.
Incorporate exercise in the morning or early in the day. Take a walk, even if it is just around the house or your office during the day.
Consider starting with a protein-heavy breakfast, since sleep deprivation can increase appetite and craving for high-carbohydrate foods and sugars.
Stop using caffeine after noon. Use of caffeine too late in the day can lead to trouble falling asleep and even disrupted sleep.
Adults, decline that wine at bedtime. Wine and other kinds of alcohol can also disturb sleep.
If you’re a parent or caregiver, try to be patient with your kids as they adjust to the new times. Sleep deprivation affects the entire family, and some kids have a harder time adjusting to the time change than others. You may notice more frequent meltdowns, irritability and loss of attention and focus. Set aside more quiet, electronic media-free time in the evening. Consider a brief 20-minute nap in the early afternoon for younger children who are having a difficult time dealing with this change.
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Prioritizing sleep pays off in the short term and over the years. A good night’s sleep is a necessary ingredient for a productive and fulfilling day all year long.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on March 7, 2019.
Deepa Burman is affiliated with American Board of Internal Medicine as a member of the Sleep Medicine Board Exam Test Question Writing Committee.
Hiren Muzumdar does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.