This Sunday, in the wee hour of two o’clock in the morning, daylight savings time (DST) begins. An early riser, I’ve taken to calling it daylight wasting time. Before DST, the morning light is just creeping in after winter’s shorter days. On Saturday March 10, sunrise in Grass Valley, California will be at 6:22 AM. The following day it will be at 7:20 AM. I won’t see the sun at 6:22 AM again until April 18.
Perhaps you detected an undercurrent of irritation here, and you’d be right. I find the entire concept objectionable. First, there is the abrupt change. On March 10, I will have two and a half hours of darkness that will signal my body to settle down before bedtime. The following day, my body will want to wake-up at a natural time, not an artificially designated time. At bedtime, it will only have had an hour and a half of darkness to adjust. If I go to bed at my regular time, it may be difficult to fall asleep. My clock will say it is bedtime, but my body will disagree.
My DST resentment is not unfounded. The day after clocks spring forward, there is an increase in the number of heart attacks and motor vehicles accidents. Even one night of sleep deprivation takes its toll.
Sleep is a Priority
I take sleep seriously. Sleep is the foundation of my health. When I am well-rested, I am able to be physically, cognitively, and emotionally strong. A bad night’s sleep will drive a wedge into my day. I may eat more, exercise less, be crabby, and make poor decisions. That’s just what I can see. What does research tell us?
My current favorite expert on the subject is Matthew Walker, PhD, professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley. Walker has convinced me that good and sufficient sleep is the single most important commitment I can make towards good health.
In his book Why We Sleep, Walker enumerates the many risks of insufficient or poor quality sleep. Here are a few: early death, cancer, stroke, heart attacks, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, obesity, and much more. There are also issues related to learning, moodiness, and our relationships with others. Risk of depression, anxiety and suicide are increased.
The health risk isn’t benign. Studies show that just one night of under sleeping quadruples your risk of catching a cold. Improper sleep suppresses immunity, slows reaction times, makes it harder to concentrate and increases the appetite. Sleep is so essential that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared nighttime shift work as a “probable carcinogen.”
Confessions from a Problem Sleeper
I realize I am sounding a bit preachy here. It is all well and good to say what we should do, but reality can be quite different. If sleep is a problem for you, you have my sympathy. There are few things worse than wanting to sleep and not being able to. Laying awake night after night is hell.
I didn’t sleep well for most of my life, reaching back to childhood. The effects of post-traumatic stress disorder peaked during the night. I had (and sometimes still have) nightmares that shook me to the core. I’d wake in a sweat with my heart racing. Sometimes it was so bad, I tried not to sleep. I developed a fear of sleeping. I used drugs and alcohol to help me leap over my fear into oblivion. You can probably guess that this strategy had major consequences.
After I stopped using drugs and alcohol, I was left with a sleep problem. I spent years getting help, reading books about sleep, scouring the internet, and occasionally using various prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids. I tried herbs, supplements, hypnosis, meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
In the end, a combination of things worked. Here are the most important things I did that led to my success:
- I kept trying.
- I ditched electronic devices in the evening. I turn off the computer and phone. I limit TV exposure.
- I became teachable. I kept an open mind and didn’t dismiss a solid piece of sleep advice.
- I made the decision to not fear sleeplessness. This was hard. It is one thing to make a daytime commitment to practice good sleep habits; it’s an entirely different matter to practice this at 3 AM, especially if you’ve had a long stretch of lousy sleep.
- I try not to cheat. Who wants to give up awake time in order to sleep? There is so much to do, read, and learn. However, shaving an hour of sleep off my night puts me at risk of health consequences. An early death is not worth watching one more episode of The Crown.
Here are Twelve Tips for Health Sleep (although there are 13 tips) published by the National Institutes of Health:
- Stick to a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. As creatures of habit, people have a hard time adjusting to changes in sleep patterns. Sleeping later on weekends won’t fully make up for a lack of sleep during the week and will make it harder to wake up early on Monday morning.
- Exercise is great, but not too late in the day. Try to exercise at least 30 minutes on most days but not later than 2-3 hours before your bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine before bed. Coffee, colas, certain teas, and chocolate contain the stimulant caffeine, and its effects can take as long as 8 hours to wear off fully. Therefore, a cup of coffee in the late afternoon can make it hard for you to fall asleep at night. Nicotine is also a stimulant, often causing smokers to sleep only very lightly. In addition, smokers often wake up too early in the morning because of nicotine withdrawal.
- Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed. Having a “nightcap” or alcoholic beverage before sleep may help you relax, but heavy use robs you of deep sleep and REM sleep, keeping you in the lighter stages of sleep. Heavy alcohol ingestion also may contribute to breathing impairment at night. You also tend to wake up in the middle of the night when the effects of the alcohol have worn off.
- Avoid large meals and beverages late at night. A light snack is okay, but a large meal can cause indigestion that interferes with sleep. Drinking too many fluids at night can cause frequent awakenings to urinate.
- If possible, avoid medicines that delay or disrupt your sleep. Some commonly prescribed heart, blood pressure, or asthma medications, as well as some over-the-counter and herbal remedies for coughs, colds, or allergies, can disrupt sleep patterns. If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist to see whether any drugs you’re taking might be contributing to your insomnia and ask whether they can be taken at other times during the day or early in the evening.
- Don’t take naps after 3 p.m. Naps can help make up for lost sleep, but late afternoon naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
- Relax before bed. Don’t overschedule your day so that no time is left for unwinding. A relaxing activity, such as reading or listening to music, should be part of your bedtime ritual.
- Take a hot bath before bed. The drop in body temperature after getting out of the bath may help you feel sleepy, and the bath can help you relax and slow down so you’re more ready to sleep.
- Have a good sleeping environment. Get rid of anything in your bedroom that might distract you from sleep, such as noises, bright lights, an uncomfortable bed, or warm temperatures. You sleep better if the temperature in the room is kept cool. A TV, cell phone, or computer in the bedroom can be a distraction and deprive you of needed sleep. Having a comfortable mattress and pillow can help promote a good night’s sleep. Individuals who have insomnia often watch the clock. Turn the clock’s face out of view so you don’t worry about the time while trying to fall asleep.
- Have the right sunlight exposure. Daylight is key to regulating daily sleep patterns. Try to get outside in natural sunlight for at least 30 minutes each day. If possible, wake up with the sun or use bright room lights in the morning. Sleep experts recommend that, if you have problems falling asleep, you should get an hour of exposure to morning sunlight and turn down the lights before bedtime.
- Don’t lie in bed awake. If you find yourself still awake after staying in bed for more than 30 minutes or if you are starting to feel anxious or worried, get up and do some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. The anxiety of not being able to sleep can make it harder to fall asleep.
- See a health professional if you continue to have trouble sleeping. If you consistently find it difficult to fall or stay asleep and/or feel tired or not well rested during the day despite spending enough time in bed at night, you may have a sleep disorder. Your family healthcare provider or a sleep specialist should be able to help you, and it is important to rule out other health or emotional problems that may be disturbing your sleep.
A Note to Night Owls. Some of us are larks; some are night owls. We don’t have a lot of control over which we are, but we do have control over the quality of sleep we get. The requirements for sleep are the same regardless of when your body tells you to go to bed. Again, stay off the computer at night and you may find your body is less stimulated and you may get drowsy earlier. I am serious about this. Many of the health complaints I get from people are time-stamped in the middle of the night. If you are up at that time, don’t turn on the computer, tablet or phone.
Sleep Tips for Daylight Savings Time
I go to bed earlier the week before we change the clocks. I aim for 30 minutes early, but realistically, it is usually more like 15 minutes. After the clock changes, I may take a few minute nap after lunch to help me with daytime drowsiness. Exercise in the afternoon also helps.
I am passionate about sleep. I’ll end with links to more information about sleep, including some of my favorite books. Sweet dreams.
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine www.sleepeducation.org
- American Sleep Association www.sleepassociation.org
- The National Sleep Foundation www.sleepfoundation.org
- The Mystery of Sleep by Meir Kryger
- The Promise of Sleep by William Dement
- The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time by Arianna Huffington
- Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker