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5 Tips for Coping as Clocks Fall Back

With Halloween behind, most of us are now focusing on the upcoming holiday season. However, before we get there we need to survive the darkest holiday of all: the end of daylight saving time.

Two hours after midnight on Sunday, the clocks go back one hour, ushering in a bleak winter day. Goodbye, beautiful 6 p.m. sunsets. Hello, feeling like it’s after 10 p.m. by the time you get home from work.

Changing the clocks is rarely welcomed by most people, and the "spring forward, fall back" ritual has no practical value for farmers or schoolchildren these days. Nevertheless, it persists.

Is it possible to fix this on a federal level? Absolutely. Unfortunately, we haven’t. And, this is problematic for several reasons.

When you set your clock back, you disrupt your body's circadian rhythms - the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that happen within a 24-hour cycle, according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).

Sleeping, waking up, and eating are all things we expect to happen at certain times during the day in response to cues from the sun and our repeated repetitions of these routines at the same time each day. For example, Aneesa Das, MD, a sleep medicine specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center told Everyday Health that, “natural sunlight during the day and the absence of light in the evening help to drive our circadian sleep phase.”

A change in routine - even by an hour - puts your circadian rhythms slightly out of sync, kind of jet lag. Due to the time being a bit off on the clock, your circadian rhythms can become slightly misaligned, affecting a number of physiological processes, such as sleep, digestion, and cardiovascular function.

Additionally, the shortened, colder, and darker days contribute to as many as 20% of Americans experiencing "winter blues" every year. In fact, seasonal affective disorder or, appropriately enough, SAD is thought to affect 4% to 6% of Americans. SAD can cause depression, increased appetite (particularly for carbohydrates), weight gain, fatigue, excessive sleep, and a loss of social activity. Although many of the symptoms do overlap with clinical depression, SAD typically occurs only in the fall and winter.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that there are ways to make this transition easier on your body and mental health.

1. Your sleep cycle will need to be longer.

Generally, your internal clock will adjust within a week or two. The adjustment will be less pronounced if you get extra sleep before the time change. Instead of sleeping in the next morning, go to bed 30 minutes earlier. Maintain a consistent schedule for eating, socializing, going to bed, and exercising. Avoid heavy workouts within four hours before bedtime since they increase your body's core temperature.

2. Follow basic sleep hygiene.

The importance of good sleep habits cannot be overstated, says Matthew Morgan, MD, a primary care physician. You're less likely to be affected by the hour switch if you're already following a regular sleep routine than if you're constantly switching sleep and wake times.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends that going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, avoiding caffeine in the late afternoon and evening, and turning off electronic devices 30 minutes before bed can all help establish a regular sleep routine.

“Relaxing activities, such as reading in a different room or going for a walk, before bed can also be of benefit,” Morgan adds.

Dr. Jamie M. Zeitzer, an associate research professor at Stanford's Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, says the end of daylight saving time is a good time to examine your sleep habits.“Kind of like a New Year’s resolution, [DST] is a good excuse to do something about your sleep.”

3. Sleeping is downtime.

Staying on top of your bedtime routine is particularly important after DST ends. This is especially important for young children. It sends a strong signal that it is time to sleep. Limit screen time before bedtime as well -- at least an hour before bed. Melatonin, a hormone that triggers sleepiness, is hindered by a high-intensity light. The same way sunlight affects sleep, it stimulates the brain.

4. Focus on your mental health.

If you want to maintain your mental health this time of year, you don't need a formal diagnosis or to consult a doctor. In fact, getting around three hours of sunshine each week should help fight back against SAD symptoms. So, maybe during your lunch break, you could go for a walk.

Experts also recommend the following strategies:

  • Physical activity -- even if it’s gentle, like stretching or yoga.

  • Meditation.

  • Moving your kitchen table or work desk closer to the window.

  • Trying light therapy with the help of SAD lamps.

  • Make social plans so that you have something to look forward to, as well as prevent isolation.

  • Scheduling an appointment with a therapist if SAD symptoms are interrupting your daily life.

5. Tire your children out.

Do you have children who are balls of energy? If so, exhaust them during the afternoon before the switch. For example, you could take them to the park or run around your backyard -- both also work if you have energetic four-legged family members. Or better yet, put them to work by helping you rake and bag leaves all afternoon.

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