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Dear Mark: Time Change

If you ask people whether “falling back” or “springing forward” hits them hardest, most will say spring. (I’m in this camp also.) I’ll admit that I love the extra hour of sleep in fall but dread the reverse a few months later. Switching the clock (in either direction) can leave you feeling oddly displaced, like you’re never where you’re supposed to be at any given time. The world is going about its business in the usual routine, but something feels off. For some people, sleep [7] is the area hardest hit and the last thing to finally adjust. I get emails pretty frequently about sleep. For some readers, it’s the final frontier in their Primal conversion. Not surprisingly, time changes (both fall and spring) seem to inspire more emails on this front. To summarize the batch, a lot of people feel thrown for a couple of weeks and struggle somewhat to keep their energy up while they transition their sleep schedules.

Switching the clocks is just one of those things that underscore how our modern life inevitably strays from natural rhythms. We change the clocks in the interest of energy efficiency, kids at the bus stop in the morning, etc. The setup addresses modern needs, but there’s a larger context here. For all but a small fraction of our evolutionary history, humans have equated natural light with awake and dark with sleep. We are still products of that environment, no matter how many bulbs are burning in our houses at 11:00 at night. Some of the best, most restful sleep I’ve ever gotten was the nights I spent without electricity. There’s the camping of course, but even in the otherwise “civilized” comfort of modern shelter the same pattern held true. A few years back Carrie and I were visiting friends in New England, and some bad winds knocked out power for two days of our trip. At first the candles and novelty were fun. We talked around the wood stove and relished the quiet, but the darkness got the best of us pretty quickly. It wasn’t much later than 8:00 when we all packed it in. Not surprisingly, we all felt great the next day.

Fortunately, “falling back” to standard time actually gives us a chance to be more in line with the natural light, and for a night or two we might go with it. Some of us voluntarily or grudgingly turn in early for a couple of weeks and then roam the house alone at 5:00 a.m. only to need a second cup of coffee before even leaving for work. In most cases, it doesn’t take us long though to get back in our old habits. As some telling, but not surprising, research [8] highlighted last year, our modern sleep habits are more tied to primetime T.V. schedules (among other modern impositions) than to natural circadian instinct. We stay up to watch the opening monologues or maybe finish a work project, to read one more chapter of a novel or fold one more load of laundry while the kids are asleep and the house is quiet. Taking advantage of that extra hour of sleep, or at least hitting the pillow “early” the next night feels too luxurious for our hyper-conscientiousness culture.

In terms of physiology, there’s a legitimate toll to the whole time change project. The circadian rhythm is a powerful physical phenomenon [9] – right down to the molecular level. Hormonal levels, blood pressure, body temperature, even gene activity are directed by it. Although circadian rhythm is ordered and maintained internally, it’s obviously influenced by the external, namely light and dark cycles.

Lucky for us right now, standard time is more in line with natural light/dark cycles. The big problems, researchers have found, occur in the spring, when more of us find ourselves really dragging and companies see a rise in workplace injuries because people are tired [10]. Researchers, analyzing large surveys, have even found evidence that suggests [11] we’re wired to stay on standard time. During non-working days, scientists found, “the timing of sleep…follows the seasonal progression of dawn under standard time, but not under DST.” In fact, their study (which also included observation of 50 individuals) concluded that, overall, humans’ circadian rhythm doesn’t truly adjust to daylight savings time period. (The people most negatively impacted, not surprisingly, were the night owls among the group.) Messing with our bodies’ natural physiological patterns has, as you might expect, real consequences. A study presented to the Society for Neuroscience showed [12] that mice whose day/night cycles were thrown off exhibited “weight gain, impulsivity, slower thinking, and other physiological and behavioral changes”. (Those of us who have ever been sleep deprived can probably identify with these creatures.) Incidentally, metabolic hormones – including insulin – were affected by the day/night cycle changes.

As to sleep transitions, I’d say celebrate the extra hour and the return to standard time. (Your inner Grok [13] approves.) As we all learn to live with a little less light in the evenings, accept the natural cue to slow down at night. Feel what it’s like to take on a rhythm more in sync with the seasonal progression. One of the keys to good sleep is the effective transition to a state of calm and rest. Use the time change to inspire that kind of routine. Dim the lights earlier. Turn off the technology. If you have that wood stove (or even some candles), take advantage. Getting on track in large part means getting in touch with the messages your body is sending. Maintain a good Primal diet, eat an early dinner if you can, and be patient with the transition. Turn down the noise of life and remake late evenings into what they were intended to be – a time to enjoy, relax and unwind.

Hope everybody had a good weekend. As always, thanks for the questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!