Putting wellbeing first when the clocks go back
Many of us, at this time of year, set reminders for ourselves to put our clocks back an hour. But how many of us understand the health risks associated with meddling with time?
So, what is Daylight Saving Time?
It is the period between March and October when the clocks are one hour ahead, often called British Summer Time. It’s basically society’s way of getting the most from the natural sunlight available to us throughout our day. So, to ‘catch up’, if you like, with the longer and shorter days across our varied seasons, we put the clock forward an hour in spring and then back an hour in autumn, back to Greenwich Mean Time.
How Does the Time Change Affect our Health?
Turning the hand of a clock back an hour may seem like a small action with only a practical or functional impact, but this is not wholly the case. It has been evidenced that the one-hour alteration can play havoc on our natural body clock. This is where understanding our circadian rhythm is essential for looking after our health and wellbeing. But what do we mean by this?
According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, “Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle. They respond primarily to light and darkness in an organism’s environment. Sleeping at night and being awake during the day is an example of a light-related circadian rhythm.”
So, because our natural adjustment to the changes in daylight is artificially disrupted by a change in time, our circadian rhythm is somewhat jolted, and this can cause risks to our health in different ways. For example, a disruption to our sleeping pattern can have negative effects on our reaction times, alertness and ability to make prompt decisions. In turn, these effects can lead to incidents of injury and even fatal accidents such as traffic collisions.
A study by the University of Alabama, Birmingham conducted in 2012 found a rise in those suffering cardiac events in the days following the switch to DST. For those with underlying or chronic health conditions, such as heart disease for example, changes to the circadian rhythm can be a shock to the immune system, and along with even small changes in sleeping patterns, can mean higher risk of experiencing a heart attack and stroke.
Changes in our exposure to natural light may also impact on our mental health. Medical professionals have noticed a pattern linked to increased diagnosis of depression and SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) following DST. During the darker mornings and nights, people see less natural sunlight; going to work when it’s still dark and returning home after the sun has already set. These day-to-day patterns mean less exposure to vitamin D and can therefore lead to a decrease in serotonin – a hormone associated with boosting mood, promoting calm and focus.
What you Can do
Prepare in advance: Set your alarm to wake up a little earlier than usual on the Friday and Saturday before the switch to British Summer Time. In October, on the switch to GMT, go to bed slightly later and get up slightly later, say by 20 minutes or so, for a couple of days before the switch. This makes it a bit easier to get out of bed on Monday morning.
Top up: Your exposure to vitamin D will likely see a notable decrease in the winter months of GMT. Advice from the NHS is “Our body creates vitamin D from direct sunlight on our skin when we’re outdoors. In the UK, sunlight doesn’t contain enough UVB radiation in winter (October to March) for our skin to be able to make vitamin D.” So, to help both your bones and your mood in winter months, make sure you supplement with vitamin D, and choose foods that are rich in this vitamin, such as oily fish, eggs and mushrooms, or foods that are fortified with vitamin D, such as various cereals, dairy products and juices.
Try more Tryptophan: Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps serotonin to do its job, and it can be found in foods such as chocolate, oats, dairy products, chickpeas, nuts, seeds and fish.
Look after yourself: It can be easy to indulge in comfort foods at this time of year, not to mention the late nights from Halloween parties, firework displays, and so on. But take the time you need to get some real R&R. Meditate, exercise, eat well and, essentially, get a good night’s sleep.
Talk: If you’re feeling the effects of dark nights and the winter months, feeling depressed or overwhelmed by tiredness and you feel you would benefit from some support, don’t be afraid to open up or ask for help. Speak to your doctor or a mental health professional who can help you better manage your mood.