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This is how top sleep experts prepare for daylight saving

It turns out that even a one-hour time shift can come with consequences in our already sleep-deprived population.
Image: A woman sitting on bed stretches
A woman sitting on bed stretchesAndersen Ross / Getty Images/Blend Images

On Sunday, March 11 at 2 a.m., Americans in every state except Hawaii and Arizona will lose an hour of sleep as clocks spring ahead for daylight saving. The ritual, which began in the U.S. and Europe in the World War I era to help conserve energy, poses a minor jolt to our sleep patterns.

It turns out that even a one-hour time shift can come with consequences in our already sleep-deprived population. After all, only 35% of adults report getting the recommended seven hours or more of sleep each night, according to the American Sleep Association.

For starters, there’s an increased risk of traffic accidents during the six days following spring’s daylight saving, according to a 2014 study conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder. Another 2014 study, led by the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center, shows there’s a 24% jump in the number of heart attacks that occur on the Monday after we “spring forward” for daylight saving compared to other Mondays throughout the year.

You’re also more likely to be off your game at work. “When sleep-deprived, a person’s ability to judge their own impairment becomes impaired,” said Dr. Katherine Sharkey, associate professor of medicine and psychiatry and human behavior at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University. This can impact everything from the ability to gauge alertness to the process for making decisions (which is why it might be better to pencil in a day for administrative tasks or catching up on emails). “We’re more prone cognitively to be sluggish and lack mental clarity on the Monday after daylight saving and our performance can suffer,” said Dr. James Maas, author of Sleep for Success!

Fortunately, there are some simple tips and tricks that can be used to help your body prepare for the one-hour loss of sleep. Below, some insight on what works best for sleep experts themselves.

1. Begin preparing one week in advance

To avoid the shock of a one-hour loss of sleep, Dr. Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and author of The Power of When, begins preparing one week ahead. On the Sunday before, he goes to sleep and wakes up 15 minutes earlier than normal. Then, he adjusts his sleep and wake time by 15 minutes earlier two days later. On the third day before daylight saving, he’ll also go to bed and wake another 15 minutes earlier. By the time the actual time change rolls around, he’s already adjusted. He said this strategy is also helpful for business travelers preparing to change time zones.

2. Avoid social jet lag on the weekend of daylight saving

“It’s common for people living in western society to keep an earlier bedtime routine on weekdays than the weekends, but when it comes to daylight saving, I try to avoid this,” Dr. Sharkey said. While it’s tempting to stay up later on a Friday night and sleep in on Saturday, she suggests keeping a consistent circadian rhythm, which is your 24-hour internal clock that dictates sleep and wake cycles.

3. See the light

Immediately after waking on the morning of daylight saving, Dr. Breus recommends observing 15 minutes of natural sunlight. In fact, he goes a step further, using light therapy (also known as phototherapy), which provides exposure to intense level of lights through a light therapy box or bulb. This strategy, also used to treat seasonal affective disorder, is believed to impact brain chemicals linked to sleep and mood.

4. Adapt healthy sleep habits year-round

Since sleep-deprived people feel more of an impact on daylight saving, it’s helpful to practice healthy habits to ensure a good night’s sleep throughout the year. Three golden rules help ensure you sleep well: meet your individual sleep requirement every night, go to bed and wake up at the same time, and get long blocks of continuous, uninterrupted sleep, said Dr. Maas. In addition, try to cut off your caffeine intake after 2 p.m., avoid alcohol three hours before bedtime and nix the use of electronics or screen time in the hour leading up to bedtime. “Like looking at the sun, screen time blocks melatonin, so when you shut the lights your brain won’t produce enough melatonin—and this can delay sleep for up to an hour,” Dr. Maas said.

5. Be patient

Whether you follow all or none of these strategies, keep in mind that it only takes one to two days to adjust to a one-hour change in your sleep patterns, according to Dr. Breus. That said, based on scientific studies that link the time change to incidents when driving, it’s still best to err on the side of caution, particularly during the week following the time change.

The bottom line: Daylight saving might seem trivial, but it can take a toll. Be kind to your mind and body by following these simple tips, and look forward to brighter mornings ahead.