Spring Forward: Resetting Your 'Body Clock'
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 are still recovering from the “spring forward,” sleep expert Dr. Wilfred Pigeon 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?
Pigeon: Yes, it’s real. And it exists in the form of a bundle of neurons (nerve cells) nestled deep in our brains, known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. This grouping of nerves steers a whole host of biological rhythms—including the timing of our sleep and wakefulness.
Health Matters: So, how does it affect us when there’s a time change?
Pigeon: This SCN is strongly tied to light, which plays heavily into our feeling either tired or rested. The nerves composing our SCN are “wired” to the retinas in our eyes. Nature’s 24-hour light-dark cycle supplies the SCN the critical information it needs to keep our daily rhythms on pace. The SCN does this, in part, by triggering the nearby pineal gland to increase the production and release of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, at precisely the right time for us to make use of it.
To see how delicate the timing of sleep and wake cycles can be, you need only fly across a few time zones and observe what happens. Jet lag—and the poor sleep that ensues for a couple of nights—is essentially the product of a confused SCN. It’s almost like a band keeping pace with an inexperienced drummer; the jet-lagged brain and body really struggle to get in sync.
Health Matters: Why is it more difficult to “spring forward” than to “fall back”?
Pigeon: It’s probably because so many of us are chronically sleep-deprived—making it that much more taxing to lose an hour, as opposed to gaining one.
Health Matters: Is there anything we can do to ease our adjustment to the time change?
Pigeon: Ideally, you should prepare a day or two before the shift. But, now that we’ve changed our clocks, one of your best bets is to get plenty of exercise this week. It may help wear you out for your earlier bedtime. As you continue to ease in to the change, it can’t hurt to sip a strong cup of coffee in the mornings, or open the blinds and let sunlight spill into your bedroom as soon as you get up.
Health Matters: As for bedtime, it can be hard change our habits and turn in at an earlier hour. Any advice for the evenings?
Pigeon: First, if you are sleepy enough, embrace it! Call it a night. But if you’re not tired, don’t even bother—you’ll just spend that extra hour lying awake in bed frustrated. Give it time. Your body will acclimate naturally.
In addition, try these tips:
maintain a regular bedtime as much as possible
avoid naps, which might feel good at the time but can make it tricky to sleep later on
shun stimulating activities immediately before bed, including channel and web surfing, and physical exercise
keep the bedroom reserved for just sleep and sex, not lounging or watching TV.
Health Matters: In general, how much sleep do we need? And what happens physically and emotionally when we don’t get enough?
Pigeon: Though we’re quick to spout off “eight hours” as the magic number for adequate sleep, the truth is that the numbers are actually a bit fuzzy. Much depends on how sleep quantity (or sleep duration) is measured. Several large surveys have found the overall average sleep duration to consistently come in at just about seven hours per night. And many of us catch up on sleep on the weekends, so all nights are not created equally.
Sleep is crucial to health and life. Chronic deprivation can diminish the production of growth hormone and even disturb our ability to learn and recall information. In fact, over a relatively short time—just one week—the effects of nightly partial sleep deprivation can lead to performance reductions on cognitive and motor tasks that are right on par with the kind of decreases we observe in persons with blood alcohol contents of 0.10 percent. That’s above the legal driving limit in all U.S. states.
At the extreme, prolonged total sleep deprivation in laboratory rats has been shown to weaken their ability to fight infection and regulate body temperature—and in extreme cases, has led to death in a matter of weeks. Although this may seem dramatic, it goes to show just how vital sleep is to life.