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Early daylight-saving time makes adjustment harder

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com · 340-2395

Like most people, Dermietrice Birdsong knows switching to daylight-saving time brings a struggle in the mornings, at least for two or three days.

But this year the 31-year-old mother of four said waking up feels like more of struggle for her and her children, ages 6 to 14. The children are still so tired at night, they go to bed early without being told, she said.

“Now they’re in the bed by 9 o’clock,” Birdsong said. “I don’t have to say anything to anybody. Some are asleep before 8:30.”

If you’re having the same struggles the Birdsongs are having, it could be because daylight-saving time came March 11 — three weeks earlier — this year or perhaps because you’re making it worse by taking advantage of the longer daylight hours.

Light is the key component that synchronizes a person’s circadian rhythms or sleep/awake cycles, said Dennis Butler, nurse practitioner for The University of Alabama at Birmingham Sleep-Wake Disorder Clinic.

Darkness prompts the brain to produce the hormone melatonin, which helps induce sleep. Conversely, daylight suppresses melatonin production, and that’s why people naturally sleep at night and are awake in the day, he said.

Maintaining a regular schedule for going to bed and waking also plays an important role for a healthy circadian rhythm, Butler said, so when both light and schedules go out of synch, the brain and body struggle to adjust.

Adjusting to daylight-saving time is nothing new, but this year people also had to deal with darker mornings than they’ve encountered when springing forward three weeks later in April.

In fact, sunrise this week has been later than any time North Alabama has ever encountered. Previously the latest sunrise was during the first two weeks in January when the sun rose at 6:54 a.m. On Sunday, it rose at 7:03.

When Americans used to switch to daylight-saving time in April, they had an additional 40 minutes of morning sunlight to help them wake up.

What this basically means is it’s dark or barely light when people are rising to be at work or school at 7 or 8 in the morning.

The Birdsongs, for example, rise at 6 a.m. when it’s still pitch black, but a week ago the sky had a pre-dawn glow.

“Sunlight absolutely, positively will help you wake up. That’s what it does,” Butler said. “And so now people are not only out of synch with the their circadian rhythm because of the time change; you’ve got that pressure of cutting your darkness short by an hour and then when you wake up in the morning, you don’t have the sunlight that you did before.”

One of the ways people make adjusting harder is by taking advantage of the longer days and getting outside to soak up the sunlight and warmer temperatures of spring, he added.

More sunlight means less melatonin, so it’s harder to fall asleep, and less sleep of course can make it harder to wake up, he said.

To adjust to the first week of daylight-saving time, Butler advises refraining from exposure to the extra outside light, and wearing sunglasses and a cap in the afternoon to help shield the eyes. Indoors, keep drapes closed and reduce the use of artificial lights.

“If somebody is now waking up in the dark, my advice to them would be to turn on every light in the world they can. Even exposing yourself to artificial light helps,” he said.

Birdsong said her family is adjusting to the time change but it hasn’t been as quick as earlier years.

“It’s still kind of hard getting them up in the morning,” she said.“And my youngest one is still going to bed without being told.”

Butler said under optimum circumstances, people can readjust their sleep cycles about 30 minutes per day when catching up to daylight-saving time or jet lag.

“In theory, you can adjust in two to three days,” he said. “Obviously it’s easier to adjust in the fall than the spring. Fall generally just takes a day.”

Daylight-saving time can be costly

You might want to be a little more careful when driving after the country switches to daylight-saving time.

National and local statistics show traffic wrecks rise during that period, likely because drivers are not as alert because of lost sleep.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in 1998 that wrecks increased 17 percent the Monday after moving clocks ahead one hour.

Decatur police records from the previous three years also show increases in wrecks the week after daylight-saving time begins compared to the week before the change:

  • 2004 — Wrecks increased to 74 from 64; up 15.6 percent.

  • 2005 — Wrecks increased to 73 from 64; up 14.1 percent.

  • 2006 — Wrecks increased to 70 from 37; up 89.2 percent.

    Paul Huggins

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