[by Tamara Sellman RPSGT CCSH for Advanced Cardiovascular Sleep Disorders Center]
MARCH IS NATIONAL SLEEP AWARENESS MONTH
In just one week (on Sunday, March 11 at 2am), we’ll be setting our clocks forward again in recognition of the century-old practice known as Daylight Saving Time.
At that time, we gain an hour of sunlight and (theoretically) lose an hour of sleep. The fact is, more sunlight or not, you can still prepare for the time change and avoid losing sleep over it.
Why you should prepare for the spring time change
If you average eight to nine hours of sleep at night, you really won’t experience too much of a problem, as one lost hour of sleep still leaves you inside the recommended range of seven to eight hours at night (for adults).
But if you rarely get as much as seven hours of sleep at night (like about a third of all American adults), you’re likely to be sleep deprived, and sleep deprivation is the one thing that makes this time change so hard to adapt to.
Even one hour of sleep loss can be disruptive to the body’s circadian rhythms. This can prompt a period of irritability and mood swings, daytime fatigue, headaches, problems with focus and concentration, and less vigilance during tasks like driving a car, performing tasks at work which have an impact on the safety of others, or operating machinery.
Even worse, this “spring forward” of the clock has been associated with a 10 percent increase in heart attack risk, according to research from the University of Alabama.
While that disruption may only last a few days, it can lead to disastrous results, especially on Monday morning during the commute to work.
After all, even a one-hour sleep loss will leave you and your fellow drivers feeling drowsy and groggy. Just losing one hour of sleep can affect mental processing speed and reaction time as you drive, regardless how much coffee you drink before heading out with the keys in your hand.
Some research points to a 17 percent increase in car accident fatalities on the day following a time change
Even if one hour of lost sleep isn’t disastrous, it can still be a nuisance: look at this research, for instance, on the behavior of sleep-deprived judges on the mornings following time changes. On Sleepy Monday, they are 5 percent more likely to hand out criminal sentences than on other Mondays.
How the time change is similar to jet lag
This time switch can, indeed, leave you feeling a little bit jet lagged. Though jet lag is not usually disastrous, it does contribute to problems with daytime fatigue and insomnia, even if only temporarily.
Let’s think about how jet lag happens, as one hour of sleep loss due to spring daylight saving is, in fact, similar to circadian rhythm shifts that one experiences when taking a flight east by just one time zone.
As a rule of thumb, it takes one day for a person's circadian rhythms to adjust to each hour of time change when traveling east. So too, will you require at least one day to adjust to the new schedule, and possibly more than one day, if you are already sleep deprived.
Plan ahead for Daylight Saving Time with these tips
You still have some time to make this healthy transition to the time change using these strategies.
- Start going to bed earlier. For Sunday and Monday night, go to bed 15 minutes earlier than you normally do. For Tuesday and Wednesday night, go to bed 30 minutes earlier than you normally do. For Thursday and Friday night, go to bed 45 minutes earlier than you normally do. On Saturday night, go to bed 1 hour earlier than you normally do. Then, on Sunday night, return to your original bedtime, which will be “earlier” by one hour. To be especially effective, time your meals by the same strategy, as meals and digestion also inform the circadian system.
- Make the change a day in advance. It makes sense that changing your clocks on Friday night/Saturday morning (2am) versus on Saturday night/Sunday morning (2am) because at least you have Sunday morning to sleep in and adjust… you’ll just need to make sure you are aware of Saturday daytime appointments so you don’t foil your own plans.
- Sleep as well as you can all week long. This means practicing good sleep hygiene (avoiding late-day caffeine, alcohol at bedtime, and substances like nicotine that can affect your ability to fall asleep, among other things). Also, don’t nap over the weekend. This will help you create a “sleep drive” that is sufficient enough to help you fall asleep at night.
- Get some exercise. Especially when done in natural light in the morning, exercise is a fantastic way to reset one’s circadian clock. Doing so all week (even if it means a 20-minute walk every morning right after you get out of bed) will help you stick to a healthy sleep-wake schedule and make it easier to awaken to more sunshine next Sunday morning.
- When you wake up next Sunday morning, get busy. Being productive (doing chores, yardwork, exercising, participating in social activities, making and enjoy meals) will help you manage the transition more smoothly.
If you can’t stick to this schedule adjustment, consider changing your morning schedule slightly to accommodate the shift (which works great for those with flexible job hours).
You can also save time in the morning for a little more sleep by doing these tasks the night before:
- make work/school lunches
- premaking a protein-rich breakfast to eat before leaving the house
- setting out clothes
- packing items for school or work
…and whatever else you do, be safe on that morning commute and throughout the rest of the week. Put away distractions like cell phones, be aware of other drivers who might be sleepy at the wheel, take alternative routes where traffic is less hazardous, and don’t drive drowsy so you can arrive both alert and alive.