Setting the Clocks Back: Bracing for the Darkness

Nov-TimeChange-imageThe coming weekend is one that many have looked forward to since March! It’s not relief that Halloween is over, or excitement for the upcoming holiday season. It’s not breaking out the autumn sweaters and warm boots. It’s not even the oversized mug of pumpkin spiced latte they’re planning. It’s the extra hour of sleep!

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, the clocks go back to standard time, which means an extra hour to snooze. That is, unless you have a three year old who doesn’t care where the clock’s hands are, and decides to wake you up, as usual, at 5:00am…only now it’s 4:00am!!!

For those without three year olds, the extra hour might be welcomed. But the disruption in sleep patterns does put a strain on the body, and can contribute to a variety of concerns.


The Circadian Rhythm

Our internal sleep/wake clock, or circadian rhythm, regulates our alertness and works most reliably when we maintain regular sleep habits. This built in process is controlled by the hypothalamus, which releases melatonin in response to darkness. Melatonin is a hormone that makes us feel less alert, and helps explain why we get sleepier when night falls. Throwing our circadian rhythm out of whack, whether it be from jet lag, insomnia, or changing the clocks, has impacts on our awareness and can make it hard to pay attention and function normally. Whether we spring forward or fall back, a disruption in sleep patterns is potentially dangerous.


Risks Associated with Setting the Clocks Back

Though setting the clocks ahead in spring raises more obvious concerns–sleep deprivation accounts for a marked increase in car accidents, heart attacks, and more–the extra hour of night we get each autumn also contributes to some of the same problems. The additional early morning sunlight may help us wake up and prepare for the day ahead, but the earlier sunset means sleepiness will kick in sooner.

  • Traffic accidents increase, as evening commuters have not yet adjusted to the darker drive home
  • A study by Carnegie Melon University found that pedestrians are three times more likely to be hit by a car in the days following the time change
  • For those impacted Seasonal Affective Disorder,  the annual struggle with “winter depression” intensifies
  • Despite gaining an hour of night this weekend, insomnia and other sleep difficulties increase in the days following the return to standard time
  • Children get less exercise–a study out of Great Britain indicates that vigorous physical activity among kids is reduced by nearly two minutes per day; this doesn’t sound like much until you realize they only engage in this level of activity for 30 minutes


Why Do We Change the Time?

We can thank (or blame) Benjamin Franklin for promoting the idea of changing the time by an hour each spring. But it didn’t actually become common practice until 1918, as a way of helping to save fuel during WWI. It was abolished at the end of the war, but reestablished at the outbreak of WWII, also to help conserve fuel.

In the years since WWII, most of the country has continued setting the clocks forward and back each year (Hawaii and Arizona being exceptions), though calls to end the practice are getting louder. As newer technologies have made energy use more efficient, the argument that an extra hour of daylight has a meaningful impact on fuel consumption is being challenged. Perhaps one day this biannual disruption will be a thing of the past. But for now, make the most of the extra hour this weekend, and get ready for the darkness.


And for those crawling out of bed at 4:00am Sunday morning to whip up some oatmeal for a wide awake three year old, take heart. A little coffee will help, and your circadian rhythm will adjust in a few days.