Nearly everyone looks forward to “falling back” and claiming that extra hour of sleep in autumn. But taking advantage of that extra rest and keeping the benefit can be tough.
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Time changes in the fall and spring inevitably alter people’s schedules, says neurologist and sleep expert Tina Waters, MD, and it can take the body up to a week or more to adjust. Until then, falling asleep and waking up later can be harder. And, losing an hour in spring can cause even more problems.
“The behavioral changes are where most of the problems are,” Dr. Waters says. “It’s just an hour, but it’s asking already chronically sleep deprived people to wake up an hour ahead.”
Time change dangers
In some cases, the time shift can be dangerous. If your sleep cycle is out of whack, driving can be a bad idea. A 2001 National Institutes of Health study showed fatal traffic accidents increase the Monday after both time changes.
“According to some studies, by the time you recognize you’re tired, you might’ve already had a micro-sleep,” Dr. Waters says. “And, if you’re going 60 miles an hour on the highway, that’s unsafe. Or on a side street, a child or a ball could dart in front of you. It’s much more serious than feeling tired at your desk.”
A 2012 study also reported a 10 percent increase in heart attacks following time shifts, particularly the spring time change Sundays and Mondays.
For your health and safety, Dr. Waters offers these four tips for dealing with the time change:
1. Make gradual shifts as needed
In autumn, Dr. Waters says, changing your sleep schedule isn’t necessary. Fall asleep at your normal time, and your body will feel the same when you wake. Roughly two weeks before springing forward, though, go to bed and wake up 10 minutes to 15 minutes earlier daily. This helps your body slowly adjust.
2. Keep your schedule
Whether it’s fall or spring, try to manage your schedule accordingly, she says. In autumn, keep things as close to normal as possible. If you usually wake at 8 a.m., do it the morning of the time change, if you can (although the clock says 9 a.m.).
“Yes, it’ll be an hour later, but you’ll gain that hour of sleep,” she says. “That’s beneficial for most people.”
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Be consistent with eating, social, bed and exercise times, too. Raising your body’s core temperature can make it harder to fall asleep, so avoid heavy workouts within four hours of bedtime.
3. Have a nighttime ritual
Bedtime routines aren’t just for kids. You don’t need to do things in a certain order, but you should make a habit of slowing your body down. Dim your lights, Dr. Waters says. Take a warm – not hot – shower. Put your phone, computer or tablet away. Turn off the television and pick up a non-suspenseful book.
Also, avoid screen time close to bedtime. Electronics’ high-intensity light hinders melatonin, a hormone that triggers sleepiness. It stimulates your brain and makes sleep difficult the same way sunlight does.
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4. No long naps
Shutting your eyes mid-day is tempting, especially if you’re feeling sluggish. But it could backfire, Dr. Waters says. Longer daytime naps could make it harder for you to get a full night’s sleep.
“One sleep model drives us to want to sleep and another keeps our sleep cycle coordinated. We want them in alignment so we can actually fall asleep,” she says. “Napping re-cues the body’s drive to sleep, so you won’t be as tired at night as you need to be if you’ve taken that nap.”
Instead, step into the sun to stimulate your body and help retrain your inner clock.
No matter what, Dr. Waters says, work the hour change into your schedule. The closer you stick to your normal routine, the faster your body will adjust to the clock.
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