Daylight saving time may be 'a tougher adjustment' during the pandemic, experts say

Daylight saving time kicks off Sunday, March 14, causing people to lose an hour of sleep. While that doesn't seem like a big deal at first glance, sleep experts say it can be — especially during a pandemic.

People are already dealing with irregular sleep schedules, more sedentary lifestyles and actual illness — none of which are good for healthy sleep. "We've already seen a huge uptick in insomnia and in problematic sleep behaviors due to the pandemic," Kristen Riley, an assistant professor and psychologist at the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, tells Yahoo Life. "Daylight saving time can really throw a wrench in the plan."

Beautiful young Asian woman with closed eyes stretching arms while waking up in bed in the morning.
The biggest concern with going through the time change during a pandemic is that the usual tools to help speed up the adjustment "have gone out the window" for many people over the last year, one expert tells Yahoo Life. (Photo: Getty Images)

Under normal circumstances, daylight saving time can throw off your circadian rhythm, that is, the physical, mental and behavioral changes in your body that follow a 24-hour cycle. Your circadian rhythm typically responds to light and dark and helps regulate the timing of nearly every process in your body, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

But daylight saving time "impacts the body by creating an hour change between 'environmental' time and your body and brain's 'internal time,'" Dr. Chris Winter, author of The Sleep Solution and president of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine clinic in Virginia, tells Yahoo Life.

"It's an hour of jet lag — that's what it is," Dr. Noah S. Siegel, director of the Sleep Medicine and Surgery Division at Mass Eye and Ear, tells Yahoo Life. "But the implications of losing sleep — even an hour — can be significant."

Winter compares the switch to changing the clock in a professional basketball game. "You can imagine what might happen if you suddenly adjusted the clock of an NBA game from two minutes into the third quarter to four minutes left in the final quarter," he says. "There would be a little chaos initially as teams and players adjusted to the new time reality but, eventually, the adjustment is made and things move forward."

That initial "chaos" can be serious. A study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University analyzed 21 years of car crash data and found that there is a noticeable uptick in car crash deaths — 83.5 vs. the average of 78.2 — on the Monday after daylight saving time begins.

Another study found that heart attack risk jumped 24 percent the Monday after daylight saving time began. That risk then tapered off over the rest of the week.

Winter says the biggest concern with going through the time change during a pandemic is that the usual tools to help speed up the adjustment — regular exercise, outdoor light, social interaction and sleep/wake times—"have gone out the window" for many people over the last year. "That can make daylight saving time a tougher adjustment," he says.

That adjustment can take longer than you'd think. Dr. Sabra Abbott, a sleep medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine, tell Yahoo Life that "the spring time change is typically harder to adapt to than the fall." As a result, she says, it can take a week or more to feel like you've adjusted to the new schedule.

If you've been sleeping OK through the pandemic, experts say you'll probably continue to do just that through the time change. But, if you’ve already been struggling with sleep issues, Riley says that daylight saving time can make them worse.

The biggest potential pitfall, Winter says, is trying to overcompensate for the disrupted sleep, like sleeping in and taking naps. "That can often lead to further disruption and sleep anxiety," he says. Napping, in particular, can be problematic, Siegel says. "If you nap during the day, it will undermine to some extent the ability to adjust to the time change," he says.

Abbott's advice is to start preparing now. "Start gradually shifting your sleep schedule to be 10 to 15 minutes earlier a day," she says. "By the time daylight saving time comes around, it won't feel like that much of an adjustment."

Exposing yourself to sunlight in the morning after the time change happens can also be helpful to get you on a regular schedule, Abbott says. "You'll want to get as much light as possible in the morning," she says. "It tells your body that it's time to wake up."

Abbott says there may be one benefit to going through daylight saving time during a pandemic: fewer car crashes. "We may see less because fewer people will be commuting," she says.

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