When clocks roll back an hour Saturday night for daylight saving time, the human body undergoes a more drastic adjustment than just getting an extra hour of sleep.
According to Texas A&M sleep expert Dr. David Earnest, the "body clock" located in virtually every one of the body's cells is thrown off-kilter during disruptions like daylight saving time, which has health consequences. Metabolic disorders like type-2 diabetes and certain types of cancers have been found to be the result of irregular sleep patterns.
These body clocks control circadian rhythms, 24-hour cycles that manage the body's physiological processes and tell the body when to go to sleep and wake up.
"What we know now is that if you disrupt it with our normal social lives in our modern world and impose irregularity in terms of timing, that creates some real problems," Earnest said.
According to Earnest, under normal conditions when the body goes to sleep, wakes up and sticks to normal meal and exercise times, it maintains healthy functions of body tissues that all operate on a 24-hour cycle. These processes are in tune with the external environment and the solar cycle. When there is a change as minor as gaining an extra hour of sleep outside of a regular sleep schedule, the body needs to compensate and make adjustments to an otherwise well-ticking clock, which can take time.
"An extra hour of sleep is something most of us look forward to," Earnest said. "In terms of what it does for the clock in the fall it's really not that bad. What we do when we move the clocks back an hour is we ask our internal body clocks to do a reset and move them back in time by an hour."
For full-grown adults, handling the one-hour setback is not that difficult. But it can be a more arduous task for families with small children, according to family sleep consultant Danielle Rowe, owner of San Jose, California-based Dream Little One Family Sleep Consulting.
Because young children don't operate on clocks, they rely on social cues such as dinner, bath times or pajamas to know when it's time to sleep. Because of a time change, a child's body clock is operating on its regular schedule but at a different time during the day.
"Over time it creates a sleep debt," Rowe said. "A child who doesn't sleep, doesn't sleep well."
To offset sleep debt, Rowe suggests offering a nap earlier in the day or a slightly earlier bedtime. If they don't adjust and stay on their old body clock, they will continue to wake earlier and be tired during the day.
Rowe suggests making use of sunlight, which is one of the body's natural waking cues, to let children know when it is time to wake up.
"Be patient," she said, "because it takes a week or maybe two depending on your child for everything to fall into place."
Earnest's suggestion for adjusting to the change for adults might not seem desirable after a Halloween night out but offers a start to healthy sleeping habits.
"Try to adapt as quickly as possible," Earnest said. "What we want to do with our bodies based on the time our clocks are set for prior to the time change is we would want to wake up an hour early. Start out on a regular cycle of bedtimes and meal times. That's the best way to adapt to a time change."
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