By Lindsay Christensen
Nutritionist @ The Pratt Clinics
In the United States, daylight savings time comes to an end on Sunday, November 4th. While many people are excited at the prospect of gaining an hour of sleep, the time change also has a significant drawback – it disrupts our circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythm disruption causes sleep difficulties, promotes daytime fatigue, and stresses the body; these effects make us more prone to the “winter blues,” colds, and even the flu. However, by taking simple steps to optimize your circadian rhythm, you can help your body adjust to the end of daylight savings time and stay healthy throughout the winter season! In this two-part blog series, I’ll discuss six dietary and lifestyle strategies that promote a healthy circadian rhythm and will help you stay well when we set the clocks back on November 4th.
What are circadian rhythms?
To understand why the end of daylight savings time takes a toll on our bodies, it helps first to understand circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are the set of biochemical processes in our bodies that follow an approximately 24-hour cycle and regulate many aspects of our behavior and physiology, including our sleep/wake cycles, hormone release, digestion, metabolism, and immunity. (1) Circadian rhythms are produced by genes and proteins referred to as “body clocks” that are distributed throughout the body. The “master” body clock is located in the brain in a structure called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). SCN function is entrained by the light/dark cycle that occurs naturally in our environment with the rising and setting of the sun. When light and dark cues from our environment shift, such as at the beginning and end of daylight savings time, the SCN becomes confused, and our circadian rhythms are thrown off-kilter. Subsequently, the physiological processes regulated by our circadian rhythms are disrupted; this disruption results in restlessness at night, poor sleep, fatigue, drowsiness, and mood changes during the day. This is not a fun way to enter the winter season!
Interestingly, research indicates that it takes our circadian rhythms up to three weeks to adjust to the beginning and end of daylight savings time. This finding suggests that we can prepare our bodies for the end of daylight savings time in advance by optimizing our circadian rhythms in the weeks preceding the time change. Several dietary and lifestyle strategies can help us accomplish this.
6 Tips for adjusting to the end of DST
Adjust your bedtime and practice good sleep hygiene
To prepare for the end of daylight savings time (DST), consider going to bed a little later each night in the week preceding the time change. Once DST ends, your previous bedtime, 10 pm, for example, will become the new 9 pm. If you can make yourself stay up later for several nights before the end of DST, your body will be better able to adjust to a later bedtime once the time change occurs.
If you have kids, gradually push back their bedtime in the days leading up to the end of DST. Begin by pushing it back 15 minutes, then 30 minutes, 45 minutes, etc. until you have pushed it back an hour. This will help their bodies adjust better to the time change and keep their circadian rhythms functioning optimally.
In addition to adjusting your bedtime, try to practice good sleep hygiene. The term “sleep hygiene” refers to regular habits and practices that promote restful, rejuvenating sleep. Good sleep hygiene helps you maintain a healthy sleep/wake cycle and a normal circadian rhythm. The most important principle of sleep hygiene is to sleep in a completely dark room free of artificial light pollution from electronic devices. Light from devices such as your iPhone, iPad, digital alarm clock, and night lights depresses the brain’s production of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone that regulates circadian rhythms. Conversely, avoidance of these light sources in the bedroom optimizes melatonin production and sleep quality. In addition to keeping your room dark, try to keep it cool at around 65 degrees Fahrenheit; cooler temperatures signal to your circadian system that it’s time for bed and have been found to promote more restful sleep.
Don’t overindulge in naps
When darkness suddenly hits at 4 pm once we turn the clocks back, many people experience afternoon drowsiness. The urge to nap can be hard to resist. However, napping can further disrupt your sleep schedule and throw off your circadian rhythm by making it harder to fall asleep at night. Rather than napping, aim to get 7-8 hours of high-quality sleep every night so that you wake up refreshed and with enough energy to sustain you throughout the day.
Exercise during the day, not the evening
Regular exercise is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle. However, exercise should ideally be performed during the day because evening exercise activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the branch of our nervous system responsible for the “fight or flight” response. Excessive activity of the SNS before bed makes it difficult to fall asleep, throwing off your sleep cycle and circadian rhythm.