By Tricia Drevets
Here it is the day after the adjustment back to standard time in the U.S., and I am preparing myself for at least a week of disrupted sleep.
While most people accept the myth that we gained an hour of sleep early Sunday morning when the official time switch occurred, I don’t buy it. I lose sleep because of it. I always do.
After doing some research, I found out I am not alone. A Harvard University study says that the people most affected by the time change are early risers (me) and those who usually sleep less than 7.5 hours per night (me again).
However, according to research by Yvonne Harrison of the Liverpool John Moores University, none of us really gets an “extra” hour of sleep each fall, and that, in fact, both the springtime switch to Daylight Savings Time, and the resulting “fall back” actually may do us more harm than good.
Harrison’s study suggests that both time changes can produce a cumulative effect of sleep loss that can continue for a week or longer. In her study summary, she writes, “Indirect evidence of an increase in traffic accident rates, and change in health and regulatory behaviors which may be related to sleep disruption suggest that adjustment to daylight saving time is neither immediate nor without consequence.”
The problem is that the time changes affect our circadian rhythm, our natural sleep-wake cycle. When we have less sleep, our body adjusts by releasing more stress hormones. These stress hormones can cause an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. Several targeted research studies reveal an increased risk for heart attack and stroke during the week after a time change.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, our internal circadian rhythms rise and fall at different times of the day. Most adults have the strongest desire to sleep between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. Most of us also have a dip in our rhythm between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. That dip accounts for the mid-afternoon slump many of us experience.
These 24-hour cycles vary according to whether or not you are a “morning person” and whether you had enough sleep the night before.
Changes brought on by diet, travel and exposure to light can affect our circadian rhythms. However, when you combine an hour’s time change with the natural changes in daylight that accompany spring and fall, you have an equation for sleep disruption.
Since daylight hours are already waning as we approach the Winter Solstice on December 21, the declining late afternoon light is accelerated by the return to standard time. This change can be dramatic for people with sensitive circadian rhythms.
The time change can affect your cognitive abilities and your reaction times. A study by Texas A&M University study found a 14 percent increase car accidents the week after daylight savings time ends. In addition to possible sluggishness, drivers may have trouble adjusting to lower lighting conditions for their commutes home in the evening.
So can you get your sleep-wake cycle back on track? Yes, you can by following some common sense steps.
Follow a schedule – Maintaining your normal schedule may help you adjust to the time change. Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time.
Taking a short nap in the afternoon also may help during this adjustment period. A nap of 15 to 30 minutes in duration can improve your alertness and performance without making you groggy or interfering with your nighttime sleep.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the best time for a nap for most adults is in the around 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. range.
Light exposure— Light -- both its presence and absence – is critical to the sleep-wake cycle. Find ways to expose yourself to natural light during the day, and then aim to keep your bedroom as dark as possible for sleeping.
Limit your exposure to electronic light from your TV, computer or the phone before bedtime. According to the National Sleep Foundation, light from your electronics can stimulate your brain and therefore keep you awake longer.
An Ohio State University research study of mice and light exposure found that the mice exposed to light 24 hours a day exhibited more signs of depression and anxiety than the other mice.
"The increasing rate of depressive disorders in humans corresponds with the increasing use of light at night in modern society," stated research leader Randy Nelson. "Many people are now exposed to unnatural light cycles, and that may have real consequences for our health."
Regular exercise – You already know that exercise is good for you, but did you know that it can help you sleep better? Research indicates that as little as 10 minutes a day of regular aerobic exercise can improve the quality and duration of your sleep.
Keeping in mind the benefits of natural light, you can “kill two birds with one stone” by exercising outdoors and letting your body absorb sunlight while you walk, bike or run.
Limit alcohol and caffeine – Alcohol and caffeine both can disturb your sleep. Depending on your body chemistry, caffeine can stimulate your body for more than five hours. Even if you can normally tolerate a cup of coffee or tea in the late afternoon hours, it’s a good time to give it up during a time change period.
Some people may feel that alcohol helps them sleep. The problem is that, as a depressant, alcohol depresses other bodily systems as well. Consuming alcohol can disrupt your critical REM sleep stage, so it is wise to limit how much you drink as your body adjusts to the time change.
Here’s one more tip. Whether you are behind the wheel or are or a pedestrian, use extra caution on the road this time of year. The end of Daylight Savings Time and its darker evening commutes brings some risks, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration .
Federal data show that pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities were at their highest levels in two decades at this time last year.