March 3, 2010

Spring Forward with Clocks in Sync

Have you ever changed your clock - spring forward, fall back - and found that gaining or losing an hour really impacted your energy level, alertness and ability to focus?

There's a reason for that. According to Dr. Sat Sharma, a Sleep Disorder Specialist at Misericordia Health Centre's Sleep Disorder Centre, we all have what's referred to as a biological or internal clock. For the most part, from day to day, our body's internal clock is in sync with the standard clock or time clock. Cues such as light or routine activities that keep us on schedule help keep those two clocks in sync.

When we lose or gain an hour, our bodies feel something similar to jet lag because our internal clock and the standard clocks don't match up. "It's like jet lag where you're all of a sudden going to sleep one hour earlier and waking up one hour earlier," says Dr. Sharma. "It's like going to Toronto from Winnipeg and all of a sudden you have to change your schedule and go to sleep earlier. If you change six time zones, it's a major disruption."

All of a sudden seems to be the key. The sudden change in time is what makes us feel groggy. The clock says it's time to go to sleep but our body isn't ready for it, so we try to force ourselves to sleep. Instead we end up tossing and turning and getting to sleep later. In the morning we want to sleep later but can't because the alarm went off one hour earlier than the day before. Until a person's internal clock catches up with the time clock, feeling "off" is completely normal.

"It's not quick. It takes approximately five days to synchronize," says Dr. Sharma. "For those five days people are going to be a little tired or sleepy in the morning and will also suffer from some degree of insomnia, or difficulty falling asleep. I used to go to sleep at 11:00pm, now I have to try and sleep at 10:00pm but for half an hour or 45 minutes I toss and turn. Once you get frustrated trying to fall asleep but can't and keep watching the clock, you get more insomnia. That's where the danger lies - in the morning if they have meetings or classes, they'll be groggy, not focused."

The average person may be impacted by losing that extra hour and syncing up but there are three groups who are particularly affected. One group is those with delayed sleep phase syndrome or simply put, slower internal clocks. This typically includes teenagers or younger people whose internal clocks are slower than the time clock and are comfortable going to bed at midnight or 1:00am and sleeping later. Another group is what Dr. Sharma calls short sleepers - the people who barely get by with six or seven hours of sleep a night (as opposed to the recommended seven to 10 hours a night). Another group who may be at higher risk to feel the impact of DST is people on shift work who may be chronically sleep deprived as a result of working when most people are sleeping.

Tips for coping with Daylight Savings Time

  1. Get ready for it. Go to bed 10, 15, or 20 minutes earlier at least four or five days before, your internal clock will already be ready to adjust to the sudden time change. This actually works. Dr. Sharma intuitively prepares his body for the time change and as a result, is in sync by the time the time clock is actually changed. Yes, this idea even works with children

  2. Practice good sleep hygiene. See tips on how to do that below.

  3. Avoid coffee and alcohol, which can negatively impact a good night's sleep. Given DST falls on the weekend, it's possible this may play a factor for some people.

  4. Spend time outside or at the very least under bright lights. This will help sync your internal clock with the actual clock faster.

Good sleep hygiene

Our society may be chronically sleep deprived (there's a lot to do and we want to be awake for most of it, often with an electronic device in tow). Many people don't even get seven and a half hours of sleep a night. Truth is that every person needs a different amount of sleep but experts suggest between seven and 10 hours of sleep a night. When you wake up, you should feel rested, not sleepy. (If you wake up feeling sleepy, you need more sleep. It's that simple.)

Tips on getting a good night's sleep

  1. Avoid coffee and alcohol.

  2. If you must nap, keep it brief. Longer naps can encourage insomnia.

  3. In fact, try for one single, consolidated sleep - experts suggest it's preferable.

  4. Just sleep in your bedroom - don't watch TV or do other activities.

  5. Create a comfortable sleep environment, which includes:

    • The right temperature (think like the three bears - not too cold, not too hot, but just right.).

    • Paying attention to noise (less is much better and more calming).

    • Block out light (the right window treatments can make your room dark so you get a better night's sleep).

  6. Stick with fixed bedtime and wake-up times, even on weekends.

DST Facts

  • Some stats suggest people are at greater risk for accidents and heart attacks immediately following a time change.

  • The time change was initially introduced to save resources during war times. It was recently expanded - with an earlier start - so people would have a greater chance to get active outdoors and enjoy longer days.

  • Benjamin Franklin was one of the first advocates for DST but Winston Churchill was also a fan.

  • There's a positive side to DST: more daylight often means more sun-induced vitamin D, which health experts support and recommend people get more of to keep them healthy.

  • Often people will get active and spent time outdoors by taking their kids for a bike ride or going for a walk with their dog, making the most of the extra hour of daylight.

  • The additional daylight positively affects people with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

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