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Health, Science & Environment

Sleep expert says “falling back” to standard time is a move in the right direction

Happy woman stretching in bed after waking up as the sun breaks through her window.
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Early morning light can jump start people’s internal clocks. It’s something Utah doesn’t get much of in summer months

Daylight Saving time ends Sunday, putting an extra hour on the clock. Dr. Kelly Baron is a clinical psychologist and director of the University of Utah’s behavioral sleep medicine laboratory. She’s currently conducting research on the effects of sleep on cardiovascular disease. Baron explained to Caroline Ballard how the time change impacts the human body.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: How does falling back an hour and resetting impact people’s sleep schedules?

Kelly Baron: "Fall back" is everyone's favorite. Essentially, it takes your clock a few days to adjust. In your brain, you're going to bed at 11 o'clock, but the clock says 10. So essentially people get an extra hour of sleep for those first couple of days. So this is the time of year that really reminds people that, first of all, at least a third of us or more are sleep deprived. We're not getting enough sleep. It's easy for us to get that extra hour of sleep. It feels like sleeping in. And the other thing is that it reminds us that basically we're always going to bed later than we really need to. For those first couple of days, people feel better. They have more energy. Heart attacks go down. Traffic accidents go down. The “fall back” is actually a really good time of year. We then have the “spring forward” and the opposite happens.

CB: How many other systems are connected to your sleep cycle? When it's disrupted or changed, how many other things are changing with it?

KB: The internal rhythm is generated by the superchiasmatic nucleus — the SCN in the hypothalamus. This is called the master clock, and it really coordinates the rhythms of different aspects of the body. There's actually clock genes and your cells and organs and organ systems have a rhythm. For example, when you're jet lagged, your brain and your liver can be getting different signals if you're eating food at different times of day and that sort of thing.

CB: You mentioned that many Americans are sleep deprived. What kind of stress can that put on someone?

KB: We know that lack of sleep affects just about every aspect of health: mental health, physical health, safety. Not getting enough sleep increases blood pressure, increases risks of heart attacks and even early death, as well as increasing risk for car accidents and for depression.

CB: What about kids and their reactions to time changes? Are they different from how adults can experience it?

KB: Every parent knows that when it comes to the "fall back," they're looking forward to sleeping in and it's harder for the kids to do it. They always want to get up early. The kids tend to be a little bit more on the early spectrum, and eventually they do adjust. But they may be raring to go at the regular time, which is instead of 6 a.m., maybe 5 a.m. — or 5 a.m. is 4 a.m., which can be hard. But eventually everyone adjusts. It may take a couple of days.

CB: We don't rise and sleep with the sun anymore. How important is it to be following the patterns of nature? Do we still do that? Or in our electrified age of screens, should we be paying more attention to that than we do?

KB: Our internal clocks are messed up by getting too much light at the wrong time and not enough light at the right time. This is why the switch to standard time is really better for your biology, because you're going to be getting that morning light sooner. That morning light is really important for synchronizing our rhythm. Our internal clock runs on its own, but it's locked into the 24-hour day by time givers in the environment, such as the light-dark cycle. Getting that morning light is really important, and then also having dim lights in the evening. That's something that you can do by just having lamps on, for example, instead of overhead lights or reducing the screen time in the evening.

CB: So the schedule that we're on from November to March is really the biological schedule we should probably be on the whole year.

KB: Yes, that's a position of the different sleep and circadian societies -- the Sleep Research Society, the [Society for Research on Biological Rhythms]— is that we should maintain standard time. Especially for us here in Utah, we're on the western side of the time zone. As you know, in the summer, it gets light really late [in the morning] and then it stays light until 10 o'clock. And as a parent who's trying to put kids to bed at night, that really makes it challenging. But also getting that morning light, as I said, is so important for your biology. We should be getting that through the summer as well. It's harder for people on the east side of that time zone. They'll be getting light more like — sometimes five in the morning — which can be difficult for people who need to sleep later. But for us, it would be much better and much preferred for much of the country to be on standard time.

CB: What tips do you have as a sleep expert to help people adjust more effectively?

KB: Our advice is always just to take it gradually, take a few days. In the "fall back," I would say, rather than adjust, you should try to keep your old rhythm and try to get more sleep. Allow yourself to prepare to go to sleep that hour earlier. If you go to bed an hour earlier, you can get perhaps even 30 to 45 minutes more sleep. We've shown in our research that actually increasing sleep by as little as 35 minutes can make people feel better, lower their depression, even lower their blood pressure.

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