Sunday at 2:00 a.m. marks the start of daylight saving time, but there are a few health risks to consider as we “spring forward” and lose that hour of sleep.

Multiple studies conducted over the last several years have shown that the rates of heart attacks increase in the few days following the time change, which is likely due to our bodies having less time to recover from lost sleep. In addition, work place and motor vehicle accidents tend to spike up to a week following the time change.

New research released this week from Finland suggests that the rate of stroke is also increased after the time change. Researchers found a 20 percent increased rate of stroke for patients over age 65.

Why does a time change affect our health?

While there are several proposed mechanisms by which a time change can impact our health, we do not fully understand these effects.  Daylight savings time can impact our circadian rhythms (our sleep/wake cycle) and can affect exactly how much melatonin (sleep hormone) we produce. 

Melatonin, also known as the “vampire hormone,” is produced by a special area in our brains called the pineal gland— but only when we are exposed to darkness for an extended period of time. It is essential that we produce adequate levels of melatonin in our brains in order to help regulate sleep/wake cycles. The change in time can throw this system off and can produce a jet lag-like syndrome.

When the sun sets later in the day, we are exposed to more sunlight in the evening, which can delay or reduce melatonin production and make it more difficult to get to sleep.  Plus, since the sun rises later, the harder it is to wake up.

Other chemicals and hormones are also affected by the annual time change. Cortisol (a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland) production can also be affected by the time change and can produce negative health effect.

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As a rule of thumb it takes at least one day for each hour of time change.  Try these tips:

1.    Expose yourself to as much bright light as possible during the waking hours.

2.    Make sure to avoid bright lights at nighttime, especially avoiding screens before bedtime.  

3.    Eliminate caffeine or alcohol within two hours of bedtime.

Caffeine and other stimulants can cause your brain to remain active.  This can make it more difficult for you to wind down and prepare your body for bed.  Alcohol can affect your normal sleep initiation and can affect your ability to enter the deeper, more restful levels of sleep. 

4.    Go to sleep and get up at the same time every day.

Bedtime routines are very important for children and this is no different for adults.  Your body responds to cues, and it is important to maintain a consistent schedule with consistent cues when it comes to sleep. 

5.    Exercise.

Exercise is a fantastic way to prepare your body for sleep.  It is recommended that you do not exercise within two hours of bedtime as this may continue to stimulate your brain and your body and may delay sleep initiation. However, regular exercise can help prepare your body for rest when the end of the day arrives. 

6.    Consider melatonin supplements.

Melatonin supplements are safe and effective.  They’re available over-the-counter and can help you regulate your body’s sleep/wake cycles. While melatonin will NOT make you go to sleep faster, it will help your body reset its circadian rhythm and may help you sleep soundly for the night.

Daylight Saving Time is not all bad— it can be a great advantage for your overall health.  Since we are all reminded to change the batteries in our home smoke detectors during the time change, it can also serve as a wake up call to better health!  We can all use DST as a marker to set new health goals— let the longer days serve as a way to improve your fitness and set new health goals for the spring and summer.