While the shift to daylight saving time is a welcome sign of spring, it may take a while for your body to adjust to that lost hour. If you’re among the groggy who need time to recover from the “spring forward,” sleep expert Dr. Carolina Marcus offers insight into why you feel that way and how you can cope.
Health Matters: We talk a lot about our “body clock,” especially at this time of year. Is it a real thing or just in our minds?
Marcus: Yes, it’s absolutely a real thing. The internal sleep-wake cycle, or body clock, exists in the form of a bundle of nerve cells buried deep in our brains, known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. This grouping of nerves helps steer various biological rhythms, including the timing of our sleep and wakefulness.
Health Matters: So, how does it affect us when there’s a time change?
Marcus: Our body clocks are intrinsically tied to light. In fact, the nerves that compose the SCN are directly connected to the retinas in our eyes. Nature’s 24-hour light-dark cycle supplies the SCN with the critical information it needs to keep our daily rhythms on pace. The absence of light triggers the release of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. Alternatively, light exposure suppresses the release of melatonin, thereby stimulating wakefulness.
Health Matters: Why is it more difficult to “spring forward” than to “fall back”?
Marcus: Many of us are chronically sleep-deprived, which can make it that much more taxing to lose that extra hour, as opposed to gaining one.
Health Matters: Is there anything we can do to ease our adjustment to the time change?
Marcus: Sure. Ideally, you should try to prepare a few days before the shift. Try to go to bed 10-15 minutes earlier each day prior to the time change and, by that same token, wake up 10-15 minutes earlier. Exercising earlier in the day may help wear you out for your earlier bedtime. Avoid caffeine after noon; however, in the morning, sipping a strong cup of coffee can be helpful until you adjust to the change. Also, as soon as you wake up, open the blinds and let sunlight spill into your bedroom.
Health Matters: As for bedtime, it can be hard change our habits and turn in at an earlier hour. Any advice for the evenings?
Marcus: If you are sleepy enough, hit the hay! Call it a night. But if you’re not tired, don’t push yourself to go to sleep earlier. Give it time, and your body will acclimate naturally to the time change.
In addition, try these tips:
- Avoid naps. If you must nap, try and limit the nap to no longer than 30 minutes.
- Take a warm—not hot—shower, before bed.
- Avoid engaging in vigorous physical exercise in the hours before bed. Raising your body’s core temperature can make it harder to fall asleep, so no heavy workouts within four hours of bedtime.
- Avoid stimulating activities immediately before bed, such as watching TV or using electronic devices like cell phones and tablets. Put your phone, computer or tablet away. Turn off the television and pick up a non-suspenseful book. The light emitted by electronic devices suppresses the body’s melatonin production, thereby making sleep difficult in the same way that sunlight does.
- Avoid caffeine after noon.
- Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet. Your bed should be comfortable and pleasing to you.
Carolina Marcus, M.D., is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the UR Medicine Sleep Center. She is passionate about the field of sleep medicine and enjoys helping her patients identify the necessary tools to achieve better sleep. As a sleep medicine physician, Marcus diagnoses and treats patients with sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy and other sleep-related conditions.