Can springing forward be a setback for your health?

By Dr. Natasha Mitra, Family Medicine Physician with New West Physicians, part of Optum ~

The start of daylight saving time on March 10, and turning our clocks an hour ahead for another six months, also marks an influx of news coverage on the pros and cons of continuing to observe the practice. As far as their health is concerned, though, most Americans who live in places that observe daylight saving time say they don’t notice any negative effects. In fact, 7 in 10 people report that time changes in either direction don’t have an impact on their sleep.

Some studies, however, have shown that changing the clocks twice a year can be detrimental to the body’s circadian rhythm and overall health and safety. During the spring transition from standard time to daylight saving time, some research also suggests an increase in missed medical appointments, emergency room visits and return visits to the hospital.

As we prepare to “spring forward” on March 10, what’s the best way to approach daylight saving time and its potential health effects?

Daylight saving time

In most of the U.S., daylight saving time begins the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November. In March, when you “spring forward,” clocks are set ahead by one hour, and in November, when you “fall back,” clocks are set back by one hour.

But even though the change is just an hour, those 60 minutes have been shown to have negative effects on sleep patterns – especially in the first few days following the time change. And the effects on your sleep can have cascading consequences for public health and safety, with the time change being linked to everything from an increase in heart attacks and mood disorders to traffic accidents.

How much sleep do we need?

According to The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society, the amount of sleep needed depends on your age. For most healthy adults between 18 and 60 years old, seven or more hours per night is recommended.  

The quality of sleep is also important to your health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some signs of poor sleep can include not feeling rested after the recommended amount of sleep, waking up during the night or experiencing symptoms of sleep disorders, including snoring or gasping for air. Practicing better sleep habits or getting diagnosis and treatment for any sleep disorder are some ways you can improve your sleep quality.

Why does the time change impact sleep?

When your sleeping and waking routine is altered, such as with daylight saving time, your circadian rhythm is severely impacted. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral processes that respond largely to light and dark, and they follow a 24-hour cycle. A simple example of a light-related circadian rhythm is the manner in which most people sleep during the night and are awake during the day. Changing from standard to daylight saving time has been associated with increased cardiovascular morbidity (that is, having one or more chronic cardiovascular diseases), including risk of heart attack, stroke, and hospital admissions due to acute irregular heart rhythms.

Increases in missed medical appointments and increased emergency room visits (and return visits to the hospital) are also seen during the spring time change. A lack of sleep due to time change can affect thinking, decision-making, and your level of alertness. An unfortunate offshoot of this is a nationwide increase in the number of traffic accidents each year following the start of daylight saving time.

What can you do to prepare for the time change?

There are several simple actions you can take to help improve your sleep quality – tips that may be especially beneficial when we change the clocks, but which can help us sleep better throughout the year:

  • Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day – including weekends – helps you build consistency and can improve your “sleep hygiene.”
  • Keeping your bedroom a relaxing environment, free of electronic devices and other stimulating distractions.
  • Staying physically active during the day, and avoiding large meals and caffeine at night, can help you fall asleep more easily – and encourage better quality sleep throughout the night.

Planning ahead is a great start. While many of our clocks are designed to change automatically now, for those that do still require a manual change, set your clock to the new time the night before, so you’re already prepared on Sunday morning. Also, in the week leading up to the time change, slowly adjust your schedule. You can incrementally shift your meal times, and your sleep and exercise schedules, to help your body and mind be better prepared.

Practicing good sleep habits will help minimize the effects of the clock change, so it’s definitely worth making the effort. Your mind and body will thank you for it.

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