October 30, 2020

Why it may be even harder to adjust to the end of daylight saving this year

Daily Briefing

    Americans are preparing to turn their clocks back an hour on Sunday, but experts are warning that it could be even harder for many Americans to adjust to the end of daylight-saving time this year, the Wall Street Journal's Ray Smith reports.

    Is it time to abolish daylight saving time? These experts say yes.

    The history of daylight-saving time—and why it's so hard to adjust

    According to Smith, the United States and other countries first adopted daylight-saving time back in 1918 to help conserve energy during World War I. Congress reinstituted the practice during World War II, and federal policymakers formally approved a bill—called the Uniform Time Act—in 1966 to establish a uniform timeframe for daylight saving and to allow states and localities to opt out of the practice.

    Typically, experts say it's more difficult for people to adjust to the start of daylight-saving time—when Americans "spring forward," and often lose an hour of sleep. Research has shown that the practice is associated with negative health effects, including "foggy-mindedness, sluggishness, workplace injuries, car accidents, depression, heart attacks—and even 'cyberloafing,' or spending time online doing everything but work," Smith writes.

    Till Roenneberg, a sleep researcher and professor of chronobiology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, explained that when our clocks spring forward and daylight lasts longer, our traditional signals to go to sleep, such as darkness, come later than our biological clocks expect—which can have consequences.

    In comparison, the end of daylight-saving time typically is easier to adjust to, as we "fall back" and often get an extra hour of sleep. In addition, the fewer hours of daylight Americans see in the fall align more closely with the sun's natural rise and set, which means fall's standard time is more in line with our body's internal clocks that regulate our sleep schedules, Smith writes.

    But that doesn't necessarily mean the end of daylight-saving time is harmless, Smith writes.

    For instance, Smith notes that a recent study from Denmark published in the journal Epidemiology found that the return to standard time in the fall worsens the depressive effect associated with experiencing fewer hours of daylight. According to the study, rates of depression increased by 8% after a time change observed in the study.

    And some experts are warning that the switch back to standard time could be particularly straining for Americans this year, as the country continues to grapple with its coronavirus epidemic.

    For one, research has shown that the epidemic has had a significant, negative effect on many Americans' mental health—and as evidenced by the Denmark study, the upcoming time switch potentially could worsen that effect.

    In addition, Smith writes that research also has shown that the loss of daylight in the fall and winter can affect our alertness as we work from home—which could affect the large share of Americans who are working from home because of the epidemic. As James Maas, CEO of the consultancy Sleep for Success and a retired professor and chair of psychology at Cornell University, explained, "As it starts to get dark at 4 or 5 in the afternoon, that's not helping you stay alert and productive."

    Michael McCarthy, an associate professor in the University of California-San Diego's (UCSD) psychiatry department, said he thinks people who are now working from home may struggle to adapt to the upcoming time change even more than they did when working from their out-of-home workplaces. According to McCarthy, people's commutes and interactions with their colleagues typically helped distract them from the shrinking daylight hours in the afternoon. However, amid the epidemic and working from home, the dwindling hours of daylight in the afternoon could become more important to people—"kind of dominating the mood input," McCarthy said.

    How to ease your way into less daylight

    Luckily, there steps people can take to help ease their transition from daylight-saving time to standard time, Smith writes.

    According to scientists, it's important for people to take advantage of the extra sunlight they'll gain in the early morning when moving into standard time, because that extra morning sunlight can help boost people's alertness and synchronize their circadian rhythms.

    David Welsh, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Center for Circadian Biology at UCSD, said, "Getting morning sunlight helps synchronize all of the body's functions to be operating at the same time, so that things like your concentration and your appetite and your sleep are all lined up and mutually supportive of each other."

    Welsh said he plans to modify his daily routine once daylight-saving time ends to help his body adjust to the change. "I will make more of an effort to see daylight in the morning," Welsh said.

    According to Smith, experts recommend that people aim to go outside for about 30 minutes early in the morning—and plan to run their errands earlier in the day, if possible.

    For instance, Satchin Panda, a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, said purchasing groceries is "actually much better to do in the morning" because, at night, "the light level at those grocery stores and pharmacies is super bright," which can "keep us awake" later, when we're trying to go to sleep.

    Maas also recommends that people use a bright-light box to stimulate sunlight and help them stay alert as they work from home. "A daylight-spectrum light is going to keep you going," Maas said (Smith, Wall Street Journal, 10/26).

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