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 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 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 – 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. Researchers, analyzing large surveys, have even found evidence that suggests 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 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 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!

TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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32 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Time Change”

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  1. Nice post. I always dread the setback and am bummed that now I’m losing an hour of my evening hunts, but you’ve shed some new light (no pun intended) on the subject.

    Funny thing… I had forgotten about the clock switch, but naturally gave myself a new earlier bedtime and reset my alarm for earlier on Halloween.

  2. I will make a comment on this as treating patients for sleep difficulties plays a part in my practice.

    The human body clock actually operates on a 24 1/2 hour day on average (there is individual variation of course). This happens when people live in enviroments devoid of natuarl sunlight and without clocks. It is also the reason that people are tempted to saty up a little bit later each night and awaken a little later each morning.

    Thus, it is our biological pre-disposition to make the day longer. When we “fall back” we are making the day longer so it is in the same direction as our natural circadian rhythm. “Springing ahead” can be more difficult because now the day is 1 hour shorter. This is the same reason that traveling from NY to LA makes for less jet lag than traveling from LA to NY (whereby the day gets 3 hours shorter).

    This “fall back” adjustment is really no adjustment. The biggest problem is that people “psych themselves out” worrying about the change. If a DST fairy came into our rooms and re-set our clocks back by one hour in the middle of the night without us ever knowing, we probably would never tell the difference.

    Animals and young children do not seem to care, so why should we.

  3. Getting restful sleep has always been an issue for me, especially since I’m a light sleeper. Quality, rather than quantity, is what’s important to me.

    Like Mark states, certain activities need to be avoided before bed, which is something I have to work on. I have a habit of being on the computer (like many people) up until bedtime, which can throw off my sleep schedule.

    Relaxing with dim lights seems like a good idea, maybe with a light neck or foot massage thrown in. I’m sure my fiancee won’t have a problem with this 🙂

  4. Yeah, some good points here. I read in Paul Chek’s book that people need to stop using computers and televisions at least two hours before they hit the hay. I guess the bright screens of televisions and computers cause our bodies to release cortisol (?) which tells our body to stay up. And of course, being asleep by 10:30 is another very important thing to do. Of course, I can’t manage to do this, but I hope to gradually work my way into this habit eventually.

  5. I despise daylight savings time. To save energy…I’m all for saving energy, being green, etc. But come on…switching the clocks? I find it ridiculous. The clock is just a number, I also wish we didn’t have those too. I feel life would be simpler…*sighs* I want a simple life away from all this culture we live it. They like to make things too complicated.

  6. I find that quality helps me more than quantity (although I would love 7.5 hrs of sleep, sometimes it’s hard to do). So getting multiples of 90 minute REM cycles (at least 4 cycles = 6 hours of sleep) helps me feel more awake and fresh by waking up in a “shallow” state of sleep than forcing my body to wake up from a deep sleep. Everyone will be a little different, I found my cycles are a little shorter than 90 minutes. If you have a weekend to sleep in, notice the time you go to bed/fall asleep and when you wake up naturally. Chances are it will be close to a multiple of 90. Again, ideal would be 7.5 or even 9 hours.

  7. Extra hour indeed. I was so tired last night that I slept a full twelve hours. Plus, I woke up late. 11am, instead of my usual 9am. I still don’t get these time changes, you’re not saving any actual thing. I spent the first 24 years of my life on Hawaii, where we don’t have DST.

    I’m a night owl too, so maybe that’s also why the time change messes me up so bad. I can remember being as young as nine and still being awake and active as late as 11pm. That hasn’t changed. I don’t follow the “it’s dark, I should sleep” pattern.

  8. Go camping! I love camping with my family. We’re conked out around sundown and up at dawn. Who knows how long we sleep, but I always feel so refreshed after a camping trip.

  9. try this…MR16 Solux 3500k 50 watt 12v 24degree spot light…..the connectors are a matter of dollars or by a clamp on fixture….flip it on for a boost…..keep at least 2.5 feet away..even though lux tapers off massively at 2 ft its ways too powerful.

    Works like a dream

  10. It seems like everyone I talk to is somehow affected by this small change in the time. Some were feeling out of pace with the world, and others just slightly off.

    Personally, my sleep schedule is sporadic and unpredictable. It’s based on how tired I am from the activity of my day.

    Hell yeah, Benjamin Franklin.

  11. I find the changes both ways tough and always have done, since I was a child.

  12. I’m the polar opposite of most people. I am in the UK so our clocks went back two weeks ago, and I loathe the darker evenings. I wish we were on British Summer Time all year.

    I also find it much harder travelling west than east. I was lucky enough to visit Korea and Japan in September – an 8 hour time difference from the UK. Going there, I adjusted to their time almost instantly, relishing the shorter day of arrival and (therefore) earlier bedtime.

    The flight home felt as though it went on forever and it took me about 10 days to get back onto my own time. I was useless at work.

    I wonder if it depenends on our own natural inclinations. I’m a lark, and just cannot lie in bed once I’m awake (which is usually between 5 and 6 on weekdays and sometimes earlier in summer when it’s light before 5). But I have a hell of a time staying awake at night. Once it gets dark, it’s even harder. Perhaps owls do better with the autumn change and the darker evenings it brings.

  13. The hardest part for me is the headache of getting the kids back on track. I’ll be happy when they aren’t getting up at 5 a.m.!

    1. Aahahhaaaa!! The render was about 2hours, 1.5hours to print and 500mins to upoald. I have a pretty fast quad core. It is the upoald that thats the longest for me. The 8hour rain one I did took 1700mins to upoald.

  14. To me the annoying thing about “fall back” is that it is pitch dark before I am even thinking about leaving work for the day. I find it depressing. I guess I am just a long days of summer person!

  15. I work nights (11pm to 7am) by choice, as I have been an “owl” from childhood; must be hereditary, we are all owls on my mother’s side. I even stay up almost all night when I am not working. I find the fall back more difficult, partially because I like when the mornings are dark as I am about to go to sleep. Also, by the time I wake up in the afternoon, it is almost dark, so I see very little daylight in the winter. I seem to adjust to the spring ahead better (maybe we backward circadian people are backward in the time change, also?)

  16. I’ve always had a harder time with the Fall. I become nocturnal in the Fall and Winter and tend to have a hard time accomplishing economical goals because my schedule is opposite of most of the people in my society.

    In the Spring and Summer, I jump-start and rarely sit down or relax. I’m up early and I usually don’t tire out until the birds start chirping again the next morning. The only three things that ever make me want to sleep are morning dew, which makes my joints ache, the sound of cars on the streets after a long, peaceful night, and the sound of the birds in the early morning, which hits me hard and lets me know that I should either just be waking up or I should be on an entirely different sleep schedule.

    I do feel that my natural sleep and energy rhythms are strongly effected by the light hours and dark hours. But I don’t have an easier time sleeping in the Fall and Winter. The lack of sunlight and vitamin D is exhausting, but not exhausting enough to soothe the natural stress of not getting enough exercise (due to extremely cold, moist weather and the fatigue from lack of sunlight.)

    It just seems that hibernation is natural in the darker, colder months. But not sleep, because we have to keep moving or we’ll build tension, resulting in emotional stress and illness.

    In a closer-to-perfect world, each individual would be foraging when he or she had the energy needed energy for later, and sleeping and recovering when he or she needed recovery. Our natural schedules wouldn’t be interfered with by our employers expectations or the business hours of the grocery store, and we wouldn’t be deprived of sunlight while sitting in our cubicals beneath halogen lights all day or working in windowless warehouses performing the same mind-numbing duties day after day after day.

    And that, my friends, is why we should all just be hobos and go back to picking berries off of bushes, apples off of trees, crabs out of the ocean, crawdads out of creeks, etc. If we hadn’t densely over-populated in the first place, and if we hadn’t ruined the order of natural selection and survival of the fittest by idiot-proofing the world with talking crosswalks and seat belts, then there would be fewer of us here on this planet and we could all live a little closer to the equator where it’s much easier to be a hobo.

  17. One of my favorite health topics. I’m a long sleeper, generally 11 hours a night, and I’ve noticed the same effects from camping and candlelight as Mark has. Because I require so much sleep, it’s easier for me to sleep like Grok. I’m up just before first light, and dusk finds me making the dinner. I’m asleep by 7 or 8 in the winter, and I sleep less in the summer time. It is true that I never watch primetime TV and that I have no social life outside of coffee breaks, but some might say that’s a good thing. I recommend you give it a try and shut down the electricity. One study showed that modern people who did just that stay in bed about 14 hours a night in winter. They don’t sleep for a solid block of time–that’s a modern concept of sleep–instead, they sleep and wake up a few times, which is when they rest and think about dreams, and they muse. Activity is for the sunlit hours.

  18. I wonder what the owls did in Grok’s day. Perhaps they were ostracized for using up all the firewood.

    1. or all normal Groks thank those
      owl Groks” for guarding them in the nights! haha ^_^

  19. In Queensland (Australia) we keep voting not to have daylight savings, whenever there is another trial and poll. We have very hot weather and traditionally not many homes have air con, though this is changing. I dislike daylight savings, but what I dislike more is the people who think that those of us who don’t like it are dimwitted and somehow backwards.