Don’t be left in the dark

How dramatic is the change of seasons on our sleep cycle? Very, experts say.

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published November 5, 2014

METRO DETROIT — Feel like you haven’t been getting enough Zs lately?

It’s not just you.

According to experts, the shift in seasons can change more than the color of leaves — it can change our sleep patterns.

Jennifer Louwers, a counselor at Truman High School in Taylor, said she can always tell when the clocks have been changed for daylight saving time. It’s most noticeable in the spring.

“The biggest change is when it’s still light outside and they have to go to bed at 8 p.m. when it’s still light outside,” she said. “As far as daylight saving time, it’s kind of what you make of it, and as a parent, I try not to make a big deal out of it. I start tweaking bedtime a few days before, so by the time it gets here, it’s not a big deal.”

Daylight saving time actually has more to do with how we sleep than we might think. Even if we set an alarm or hit the sack a little earlier, our bodies instinctually set our bedtime according to when the sun rises and sets, according to Dr. Thomas Roth with the Henry Ford Sleep Disorders and Research Center in Detroit.

“Certainly, changing clocks always impairs you for a day or so. I think that’s always a big issue because most of us live reasonably on the edge of eight hours anyway, so an hour difference really makes a difference.”

Though we set our clocks back in the fall and gain one hour of sleep, in theory, the amount of daylight we’re exposed to each day still can make it harder to get the rest we need, Roth explained. For some, like Louwers’ high school students, that chance can make existing sleep problems even worse.

“For teens who tend to go to bed very late already, the light in the morning is what makes you go to sleep earlier because your body starts its day earlier. Now they’re getting dark in the morning, which reinforces their late schedule,” Roth said.

It’s no secret that teens tend to stay up late, making it harder for them to get up in the morning. And as it turns out, it’s not just behavioral — the American Academy of Pediatrics released information in July that confirms that adolescents biologically have a hard time falling asleep before 11 p.m. The academy recommended that schools delay start times to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to accommodate.

“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common — and easily fixable — public health issues in the U.S. today,” said pediatrician Dr. Judith Owens, lead author of the AAP statement, in a press release, explaining that delayed schedules could help curb sleep-related problems like obesity and depression in teens.

At Truman High School, start times were recently pushed back to 7:20 a.m. from 7 a.m. last year, which means that students need to be at the bus stop at around 6:30 a.m. With such an early start time, Louwers often recommends students plan their academic schedule accordingly.

“Am I going to offer a senior English first thing in the morning, a credit they have to have to graduate? I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said. “I recommend electives that they like, like pottery or something else. Sometimes, they’ll have business or career technical classes then, and push other classes they need toward the middle of the day.”

Shorter winter days can make adults more sleepy in the mornings, as well. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, daylight saving time shifts can have a major impact on sleep, and that can lead to serious consequences. In a 1996 study, the journal published a study that noted an average increase of 8 percent in traffic accidents the Monday following the start of daylight saving time.

Even adults who don’t have a hectic schedule can notice changes. According to Roth, older people have less of a routine each day to guide their sleep patterns and might be going to bed and rising too early.

“An elderly person who lives alone might not have as many social cues as someone younger, and that becomes a real issue in the winter when it gets darker earlier and their body tells them to go to bed earlier,” he said.

Luckily, the remedy for nearly all of these problems is the same, according to Roth: light. If Mother Nature is working against us with less sunlight throughout our days, we need to replace that light artificially.

“The artificial sun lamps really work very well. It’s a blue-green light, and for older people who want to go to sleep later, they would sit in front of it at night and read a book or whatever and it will eventually make you go to sleep later. Those who can’t fall asleep until later should use the light first thing in the morning, and they’ll start to wake up earlier and go to bed earlier,” he explained.

The tactic is useful for metro Detroiters who could stand to catch up on lost sleep, but it’s almost a necessity for people living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, who are affected even more dramatically by the loss of light in the winter.

Another idea, he suggested, is to take melatonin a couple of hours before bed. It’s often referred to as “the dark hormone” for its ability to trick the body into thinking it’s nighttime.

Those who want to tough out the winter without sleep, be warned: Roth said the symptoms of sleep deprivation can be brutal, and in the case of increased car accidents due to drowsiness, can also be dangerous.

“Oh, you’re dramatically impaired the next day. You’re less productive, your quality of life is decreased, lots of things.”