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Sleep-better guide to daylight saving time

5 minute read
Man opening window curtains after daylight saving time

Moving the clock forward 1 hour every spring can disrupt sleep, which in turn can harm your overall health in several ways. Here’s how to get through the annual time change well-rested.

Lauren Bedosky

By Lauren Bedosky

Every March, Americans in most states gear up for the start of daylight saving time (DST). This annual practice of moving the clock forward 1 hour helps extend natural light. But that gain may come at the expense of something critical to overall health: sleep.

Not only can we end up feeling sluggish, irritable and time-strapped, but sleep disruptions can also have severe consequences. A study published in the Journal of Biological Rhythms found a significant increase in general accidents and emergency department visits after “spring forward.”

Meanwhile, a study in the journal Open Heart revealed a 24% spike in heart attack incidents the day after DST — a Monday — all because of a change in the sleep-wake cycle.

Most people won’t experience such a drastic effect. But DST can still interfere in ways that cost you energy, concentration and time. If you’ve struggled with this time change in the past, let us help you put your issues to bed. Our sleep-better guide can help you get through DST without missing a minute of shut-eye.

Why a 1-hour sleep change makes such a difference

Our bodies run on circadian rhythms, a 24-hour internal clock that governs different systems in the body. These rhythms involve everything from digestion to body temperature to sleep. Light is one of the most powerful influences on our circadian rhythms. So when DST happens, it throws off the timing of daylight exposure and can affect your sleep-wake cycle.

Another reason we have a tough time adjusting: Our bodies tend to run best when things are predictable, and DST throws us a curveball.

“Moving the clock forward 1 hour creates a mismatch in our body between the time it ‘expects’ and the time of the external environment,” says Colleen Carney, PhD. She’s the director of the Sleep and Depression Laboratory at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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How to get better sleep during daylight saving time

These strategies can help you work with your body’s natural rhythms to ease the effect of DST on your sleep patterns. Bonus: You can also use these tips if you’re traveling to and from different time zones.

Start early. Make the time change less of a shock to your sleep schedule by going to bed a bit early during the week leading up to DST, suggests W. Chris Winter, MD. He’s a sleep specialist, neurologist and the author of The Sleep Solution and The Rested Child. Start by hitting the hay 15 minutes earlier than your usual bedtime. Keep adding 15 minutes throughout the week until you’ve reached a full hour.

Spend time in the sun. Knowing that light is a powerful driver of your circadian rhythm means you can use it to your advantage. The Sleep Foundation recommends getting daylight exposure in the morning after the switch to help your body acclimate to the new timing of light and dark. Go outside if it’s warm enough; cozy up next to a window if it’s not.

And if it’s still dark outside when you get up, use a light therapy box. That’s a small device that gives off bright light that mimics outdoor light. The Mayo Clinic says using a light therapy box for 20 to 30 minutes after waking up is effective for most people.

Adjust your schedule. In addition to light exposure, what time you exercise and eat also impacts your sleep-wake cycle. “It’s not just about changing the schedule around sleep; it’s about that whole 24-hour schedule,” Dr. Winter says.

He suggests looking at where movement and meals typically fall in your day. Then shift everything forward 30 minutes starting on the Thursday before DST. This way, you have to move your schedule forward only another 30 minutes once the time change hits.

Keep up your exercise routine. Now is not the time to slack off on your workouts. Moderate to vigorous physical activity can help you fall asleep faster, lessen nighttime tossing and turning, and ease daytime sleepiness. Just don’t exercise intensely in the hour leading up to bedtime, as some research finds it can shorten sleep time, according to the Sleep Foundation.

Prioritize good sleep hygiene. DST will be less likely throw you off your game if you follow healthy sleep habits. According to the Sleep Foundation, several components of healthy sleep hygiene include:

  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (including weekends). Remember, our internal clock likes predictability. So if you can keep daily routines in place, your body will learn when it needs to be awake and when it needs to be in dream mode.

  • Limiting or avoiding caffeine and alcohol later in the day. A couple of glasses of wine before bed may help you fall asleep more quickly, but alcohol can disrupt sleep cycles in some people. This may affect quality and length of sleep.

  • Blocking out unwanted light and noise from your bedroom. If you’re a light sleeper, consider sleep headphones or earbuds. Some to try: Bose Sleepbuds™ ($249). They not only cancel out noise such as traffic and a snoring partner, but they also wirelessly connect to a sleep app that has over 50 soothing sounds to help you drift off.

  • Putting away electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed. Laptops and phones emanate blue light, which is a powerful input when it comes to our sleep-wake cycles.

It’s helpful to know that blue light isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it’s essential for a healthy circadian system, Carney says. And contrary to popular belief, blue light doesn’t only emanate from our screens — it’s in sunlight too. So it can help perk you up in the morning. The trick lies in the timing of exposure: Blue light from smartphone and TV screens at night can delay sleep by suppressing or delaying your brain from releasing the sleep hormone melatonin. That’s according to a 2018 review in Chronobiology International, The Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research.

When to get help

With these tips, you should be able to make the shift without too much tossing and turning. It usually takes most folks a day to adjust to a 1-hour time zone change, but it might take some a few days to get their bearings, Dr. Winter says.

You can also consider using sleep aids. That said, if you’re still struggling with sleep a week after DST, make an appointment with a doctor, who may refer you to a sleep specialist. “It’s much easier to deal with these things early on,” Dr. Winter says.

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Additional sources
Increase in ER visits: Journal of Biological Rhythms (2018). “Changes in Accident and Emergency Room Visits and Return Visits in Relation to the Enforcement of Daylight Savings Time and Photoperiod”
Increase in heart attacks: Open Heart (2014). “Daylight Savings Time and Myocardial Infarction”
Circadian rhythms:
Sleep Foundation (2022). "Circadian Rhythms" 
• Chronobiology International (2018). “Systematic Review of Light Exposure Impact on Human Circadian Rhythm”
Light therapy: Mayo Clinic (n.d.) "Light Therapy"
Exercise and sleep: Sleep Foundation (2021). "Exercise and Sleep"