Fall Back: Tips for Handling the Return to Standard Time

It’s that time again! On Sunday, November 5, we set our clocks back, and we gained an extra hour of sleep. All our devices—computers, tablets and phones alike—reset on their own on Sunday morning. And soon, once we get used to it, Standard Time will be the new normal until March, when Daylight Savings Time returns.

So what’s in store? Lots of sunshine in the morning and an extra hour of darkness in the late afternoon. The days will keep getting shorter and darker until December 21, also known as the winter Solstice. That’s when, little by little, the days will start getting longer again.

Most of us welcome the extra hour of sleep, but the disappearing daylight can be tough to adjust to, especially at first. Read on for answers to your questions about the time change, as well as tips for making the most of the new season, from Dr. Daniel Barone, Associate Medical Director of the Center for Sleep Medicine and Associate Professor of Clinical Neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine.

How do the shorter, darker days affect our health?

Some people are susceptible to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as the “winter blues.” SAD is actually a type of depression that mostly coincides with late fall and winter, Dr. Barone says. “In the northeast, where I practice medicine, people may suffer from lower energy levels. They may also avoid going outdoors because of the cold weather—but that just makes the problem worse.”

For one, inadequate exposure to sunlight can cause decreased levels of vitamin D, a critically important nutrient that promotes serotonin activity. Serotonin is a brain chemical that helps to regulate mood. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), people with SAD exhibit lower-than-normal serotonin levels in the winter. They also tend to produce too much melatonin, the “sleep hormone.” As a result, they may experience changes in their mood, sleep and behavior.

The NIMH lists four types of treatment for SAD:

  • Light therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Antidepressant medications
  • Vitamin D

Dr. Barone’s patients with mild SAD have benefited greatly from taking a vitamin D supplement and sitting in front of a light box in the morning. “A light box can be a great investment,” he says. “Use it every day for 30 to 45 minutes, usually first thing in the morning. It really helps.”

However, if you have an eye disease, or if you’re taking medication that increases your sensitivity to sunlight, consult with your doctor before using light therapy, he advises.

What can we do to adjust to the shorter days ahead?

Dr. Barone sees high-quality sleep as a key variable to good health—not only in the fall and winter but all year round.

“We’re a sleep-deprived society, Dr. Barone says. “We sleep one hour less than people did 100 years ago.” The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night and even more for children and adolescents. But most of us average about 6 hours and change. That’s not enough. “We’d all do well to make sleep a priority, and that means practicing good sleep hygiene.”

What is good sleep hygiene, and how can it help us stay healthy this winter?

The National Sleep foundation recommends the following habits and practices.

During the daytime:

  • Spend time in bright light, natural light or the equivalent brightness by using a light box.
  • Exercise regularly for deeper sleep. Aim for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.
  • Eat meals at consistent times every day.

And at night:

  • Avoid heavy meals, nicotine, caffeine and alcohol before bedtime.
  • Stick to a consistent routine with a relaxing wind-down period, and keep the same sleep and wake times.
  • Put your devices away an hour before bed, and sleep in a quiet, cool and dark environment, if possible.

In New York City, where Weill Cornell Medicine is located, everyone tends to be a bit overstimulated, between the rush-rush pace of the city and its noise, crowds, nightlife and abundant cultural offerings. It prides itself on being the city that never sleeps, after all.

Echoing the National Sleep Foundation’s advice, Dr. Barone says we can thrive during the fall and winter by adopting a few consistent habits:

  • Turn off your devices—all of them!—an hour before bedtime. They emit blue light, which tells the brain to shut off melatonin. That makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Resist the temptation to stay up late, binge TV shows and interact with friends on social media into the wee hours.
  • Invest in a light box and use it in the morning for 30 to 45 minutes.
  • Go outside and expose yourself to sunlight as early as possible.
  • Exercise in the morning.
  • Relax in the evening. Consider meditation. If you feel you don’t know how to meditate, try one of the meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace, or find a meditation video on YouTube.
  • Pay attention to your circadian rhythm. That’s the 24-hour internal clock in your brain that regulates cycles of alertness and sleepiness in response to light.

Wasn’t Congress considering putting an end to the twice yearly back-and-forth between Standard and Daylight Savings Time?

Most of us dislike the time reset, and our elected officials are aware of that. The Senate actually passed legislation to make Daylight Savings Time permanent, but it has stalled in the House of Representatives. So, for now, we’ll continue to flip back and forth.

Resources to improve your sleep

Dr. Barone’s books on the art and science of sleep are well worth a look-see. The first is Let's Talk about Sleep: A Guide to Understanding and Improving Your Slumber, which discusses what’s known about sleep, what can go wrong with it and what can be done to fix it. And the second, titled The Story of Sleep: From A to Zzzz, is a lively dictionary of topics related to sleep. The book is designed to help people help themselves by improving their sleep.

Make an appointment with a specialist by visiting the Center for Sleep Medicine’s website.

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