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Surviving the Time Change

Adventist Health Health and Wellness, Mind, Podcast

LivingWell PodcastEvery spring and fall we turn our physical clocks forward and back, then expect our body clocks to follow suit. But it turns out even an hour of change can have major impacts on the quality of our sleep, and affect other areas of our lives. We're looking at how we can not only get through the time change more smoothly, but use sleep as a key to health and happiness.

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Dr. Atwal is the director of Adventist Health's Sleep Disorders Center. Her team treats everything from insomnia and sleep apnea to sleepwalking and acting out dreams. Compared to some of these conditions the time change can seem very minimal, but Dr. Atwal says it has real effects on us.

That one hour shift can seem insignificant (especially in the fall when it feel like we get to sleep in for an extra hour), but the adjustment affects more than our sleep schedule. Everything from our meals to our moods are tied to our body's internal clock. While a little extra sleep in the morning may feel good, the net result on our overall health and mood might not be as positive.

Poor sleep (or lack of sleep) has been linked to:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Weight Gain
  • Lowered immune state

Sleep Debt

Remember that extra hour of sleep you get in the morning after the fall time change? Well it turns out your body is ready for sleep an hour earlier in the evening, because that's when you were going to bed before the time change. By going to bed at a different time you may have more difficulty falling asleep. On the other hand your body is probably ready to wake up an hour earlier (even if you're still asleep the quality of sleep may not be as good because your body is already transitioning to "awake" mode). Maybe it only costs you 15 minutes, but after several nights you're now behind on your sleep by an hour or more. Ever felt like the time change seems much harder on the third or fourth day? It's not just your imagination. It's your body letting you know you've racked up sleep debt.

Compensating with an extra cup of coffee or a short nap

Caffeine: Dr. Atwal says caffeine is not necessarily bad, but can become a problem when you have too much, or have it too late in the day. In general this means 1-2 cups of coffee per day, but not after 3 p.m. At that point it can disrupt your ability to sleep.

Naps: Many cultures around the world use a 20-30 minute nap as part of their standard workday. Again, this should be done before 3 p.m. so it doesn't disrupt your sleep.

Exercise: A great stimulant we often forget about. When you start to feel tired in the early afternoon taking a short walk can trigger the alerting signals in your body that keep you awake and will make you more tired at the end of the day, when it's time to sleep.

Light: Taking that walk outside can expose your body to light, which is another key trigger for waking up. It trains our internal clock for when it's time to be alert. If you can't get outside using a light box can help you achieve the same benefit. These lights are often recommended for people with seasonal affective disorder, so you may find making light exposure a priority improves your mood as well as your sleep.

A pillar of a healthy lifestyle

In Episode 9 of our podcast, Dr. Sarah Winslow identified sleep as one of her Five Secrets for a Balanced Busy Life. Dr. Atwal agrees, saying sleep is as foundational to good health as diet and exercise. In order to have healthy sleep you have to have healthy, consistent sleep habits.

How should you prepare for time changes?

  • Start from a healthy and consistent sleep schedule. Avoid tobacco, caffeine and alcohol at least four hours before bedtime.
  • Start the change gradually. Go to bed about 15 minutes later and wake up 15 minutes later for each of the four days leading up to the time change (if it's the spring time change shift your sleep/wake times 15 minutes earlier each day). This helps make the change more manageable for your body.
  • Use bright light early in the morning to tell your body it's time to be awake.
  • Consider using Melatonin 60-90 minutes before the time you want to go to sleep. Your body naturally produces Melatonin in higher levels when it thinks it's time for sleep. You can help your body adjust to an earlier sleep schedule by starting that increase earlier. Dr. Atwal recommends synthetic Melatonin, as opposed to "natural" (which is derived from animals).