Sydney Spiesel discusses daylight-saving time's effect on your internal clock.

Sydney Spiesel discusses daylight-saving time's effect on your internal clock.

Sydney Spiesel discusses daylight-saving time's effect on your internal clock.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Nov. 1 2007 5:49 PM

Getting Clocked

Sydney Spiesel talks with readers about daylight-saving time and circadian rhythms.

Dr. Sydney Spiesel was online at Washingtpost.com on Thursday, Nov. 1, to chat about daylight-saving time and how time changes affect the body's circadian rhythms. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: Hi—am I the only person looking forward to the fall time change?

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Anonymous: Dr. Spiesel, if a one-hour shift is bad for us, what does this mean for people at high latitudes? If I recall, Fairbanks, Alaska, loses or gains something like 15 minutes of daylight per day around the equinoxes.

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: The question hasn't ever been looked at in a formal way to my knowledge, but last year (for an unknown reason which I certainly don't regret) my wife and I took a long weekend in Iceland in January (daybreak maybe 10:30 a.m.; dusk maybe 4 p.m.), which certainly has a high latitude and I noted a lot of local adaptations—lights on all the time and everyone seemed to be doing well with it.

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Frankford, W.Va.: Some states have done away with this antiquated idea of "saving time." Are we the only country in the world that practices this insanity ?

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: Not at all—actually about a quarter of the worlds population—that is, currently about 1.6 billion people—are covered by DST. But you're right—no time is actually "saved" ... it should properly be called Daylight Shifted Time, since DST just shifts an hour of daylight in the morning to the evening.

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Rockville, Md.: Thanks for writing about this. I definitely have the most trouble waking up this time of the year, before "falling back," because the sun rises so late. Now that daylight savings time has been pushed back even more, waking up has gotten much more difficult. Just a gripe to those who think that more and more daylight savings time is necessarily a good thing.

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: My trick is to be so chronically behind in my sleep that "little" perturbations like DST don't have that much effect, but it's not a method I'd recommend

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My Clock's Been Messed Up All Week: Last Sunday, the internal clock on our bedroom VCR switched on the traditional date, so now when I wake up in the middle of the night I have to do a conversion to the correct time to decide whether or not to get up. Plus, trying to remember where the remote is keeps me from falling back asleep.

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Dr. Sydney Spiesel: Added evidence that the chronobiology researchers in Germany were right—though their work suggests that for most people the spring change to DST has more effect—it certainly does for me!

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Washington Resident Vacationing in Japan: As someone who is visiting his brother in Okinawa from the East Coast, I find this topic laughable. I've been in Japan four days and have almost adjusted my sleeping schedule. I still do feel a little woozy, but the time difference is 13 hours. Are there really people so regimented in their bedtime and eating schedule that they can't stay up one hour later or go to bed one hour earlier to minimize a one hour difference? My apologies to those people who have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or other mental illness that might make the time change cause understandable angst, but the rest of us easily should handle one hour.

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: Have you been out in the sun ... I find that when I travel (not nearly enough, by the way) exposure to local daylight really helps to reset my internal clock quickly. Interestingly, I found myself not very much affected by a brief trip to Iceland in January (where there's not much daylight to speak of) and found my clock quickly reset by a summer trip to Nice in France (where the light is very bright and clear) but had a terrible time once on a gloomy trip overcast London.

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By the way, I feel the need to defend people whose inner clocks just—probably for biological reasons—just don't adapt as readily as yours does.

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Indianapolis: Actually, having been one of the few states not to participate in Daylight Savings Time, Indiana has actually made itself somewhat less antiquated by getting on the same time program as our neighbors when we started DST this year. I believe Arizona is the only state left that does not implement DST.

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: Yes—it's a shame that a great opportunity for research using an "experiment in nature" was lost when Indiana went to DST—it would have been great to compare the degree to which our internal circadian clock is reset by the coming of dawn (as compared to the effect of the local "social" clock, artificially manipulated by DST) by comparing the circadian rhythms of Hoosiers and Illinoisians (or whatever the proper word is) ... alas, no longer possible: a great opportunity lost! I'm not sure, but I think even Arizona has now bought in to DST.

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DST just shifts an hour of daylight in the morning to the evening: I think you're mixed up—as of Sunday morning, we will be gaining an hour of daylight in the morning, resulting in the sun setting earlier in the afternoon.

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: Yes—quite right ... did I say it incorrectly? As we are closing down DST and going to Standard Time, the shift goes in the opposite direction: an hour in the evening shifts to morning.

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Richmond, Va.: This transition is the easier because we don't lose an hour of sleep, we gain one—and we all need more sleep. That first Monday after the fall back is so beautiful, because I wake up easily, feeling rested. It's the only time all year that happens, and it fades a little each day, lasting about a week.

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: Just the way I feel!

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Washington: "Am I the only person looking forward to the fall time change?" I am loathing the time change—I hate going to work in the dark and leaving work in the dark ... pretty awful to never see daylight besides out my office window five days a week for months out of the year. Why do you like it so much, are you a vampire?

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: Yes—that's one of the problems we share as a result of living in a higher latitude, but that delicious extra hour of sleep on the night of the Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time shift: delicious!

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Washington: Dr. Spiesel—thank you for hosting this chat. I've never worried about or been affected by the time change, but this year, I have a 9-month-old to worry about! She likes to wake up at 6:15 a.m. How do I keep her from waking at 5:15 a.m. as a result of turning the clock back this weekend? We've been trying to keep her up a little later all week long (in 10 minute increments) but it's getting harder and harder to do as she's quite exhausted by 7:30 p.m. Any tips you can provide will be appreciated! Thanks in advance!

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: I wish I had a good answer for this one ... my sense is that young children's circadian clocks are mostly—perhaps exclusively—driven by light cycles and not at all by social cues (like alarm clocks or parents trying to reset the clock). Having said what I think doesn't work, I am sad that I have no good advice for something that does work.

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Alexandria, Va.: Wouldn't all of the problems be solved if we adopted the proposal of using computerized clocks that made sure the sunrise was at exactly the same time every day?

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: ... or not using clocks at all and just living by the sun! Sadly, that's what vacations are about, but I've had a hard time applying that plan to workdays.

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Germany: The most time-consuming, energy wasting, stupid thing ever seen. Millions of hand-made clock changes, rails and airplane changes, psychological influence on school kids. The EU "tries" to stop it but... someone seems to gain from this non-sense?!

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: The reported gains (but I don't know if any cost-benefit analysis has ever been done) are these: fewer car accidents in summer with DST—evening driving times are spread over a longer time and are more bunched together than in the morning is one. Another (actively pushed by the recreation industry) is the notion that we shouldn't "waste" daylight when we are driving to work or school, but should instead devote it to what is important: play!

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New Jersey: I've always thought that being in a funk for more than a day because of Daylight Savings (or a one-hour time difference while traveling) is lame. What about the days where you get one hour more sleep because your alarm didn't go off? Or one hour less because your dogs woke you up early? Are you in a funk for the rest of the day because of that? Your article seems to imply that the people truly affected by it are affected for the whole of daylight savings time, but everyone I know just complains about it for about a week!

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: The chronobiologists who studied the problem only noted that the spring time change disconnects dawn as a setting agent for our internal clock and that the fall DST to ST transition seems to restore it. Maybe disconnecting dawn as the setting mechanism allows social clock setting to have more power.

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Arlington, Va.: Can you recommend a certain side lamp I can use to simulate sunlight? I would like to place the side lamp near my computer while at work, so I need something small. Thanks.

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: I've seen some brand advertised, but I don't know of any data suggesting that they work (for most people ... there is additional literature about the people who suffer from "SAD"—Seasonal Affective Disorder) for most of us and better than any old light source.

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Herndon, Va.: Why does it take me a week to recover from the time change? I'm tired, out of sorts, generally unhappy and it lasts a week.

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: I guess that's just the time for your circadian clock to reset—and when it's out of sync with the external "social" clock your body is somehow aware and made uncomfortable by the disharmony

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Raleigh, N.C.: Every six months or so when the time changes everyone in my office, including me, complain about how whacked-out we feel for a good week afterward. At home we mark it as the beginning of the "Mean Season," which just gets worse after the holidays and doesn't let up until March. What can we do to minimize the impacts?

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: I've sort of noticed that, too, but the phenomenon may be bigger than just adaptation to time change on the clock. In winter (at least where the weather becomes cold) there is less opportunity for casual outdoor social interaction and perhaps that plays a part. Maybe as the days become much shorter it's no longer possible to reconcile the social clock with our internal circadian clock and that affects us badly. Maybe whatever it is that affects people with Seasonal Affective Disorder when they have inadequate daylight exposure during the winter months affects all of us, just to a much less noticeable degree.

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Toronto: I wonder if I have a screwed up circadian rhythm—I get very cold with a tired feeling in early evening and then warm up suddenly between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Is that unusual?

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: I don't really know how common that is. Lots of people have a late morning low and we used to call late afternoon "the arsenic hour" as our kids turned into, well, we'll let that pass. I don't know how your late evening experience relates to that

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South Carolina: I believe DST is not merely mass delusion but can be dangerous for those on medications that need to be taken at particular times. What do hospitals do with patients? As a type 1 diabetic, shifting my schedule twice a year to correspond with society, work, etc. is more than a simple inconvenience. Why can't those who wish more daylight after work/school simply go earlier and leave the rest of us alone?

Dr. Sydney Spiesel: Most medications don't need to be taken at precise intervals (some do), so hospital care isn't much of a worry at the moment of transition. I doubt that it's really dangerous for the great, great majority of patients. But I agree that for people like type 1 diabetes the time change can be a real problem, at least until your body adapts.

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Dr. Sydney Spiesel: Oops, must run ... my clock is calling me. Good luck everyone with the time change!