If you’ve ever considered the March and November time changes a pointless endeavour, you’ll be delighted to know that medical science backs you up.
The practice of switching from standard to daylight saving time began in Port Arthur, Ont. in 1908 as a way to enhance the amount of daylight available to farmworkers. But over a century later, a largely urban society is left scratching its collective head over why we even bother with springing forward and falling behind.
But beyond its status as an arcane tradition whose meaning has faded over the years, the loss of an hour early on a March Sunday morning can have serious effects beyond feeling a little groggy for a day or so. Dr. Julie Carrier, a professor of psychology at the Universite de Montreal and director of the Canadian Sleep and Circadian Network, can think of no positive reasons for doing the time jump every spring and fall when the negative physical and mental effects are clearly observed.
“In a society that’s already very much, and I would say chronically, sleep-deprived, it’s an unnecessary challenge to put on one’s physiology,” says Dr. Carrier.
“There are very large studies, looking at tendencies in large populations, that link the change in time to some negative impacts, including higher traffic accidents on the Monday after the time change, while other studies claim there is an increase in cardiovascular events.”
Dr. Phillip Karpowicz, an associate professor in the University of Windsor Department of Biomedical Science goes even further with his findings, citing the effect of the switch to daylight saving time as an annual stress factor for our circadian clock, the natural genetic rhythm of the human body that extends from basic cells to major organs.
Circadian rhythm is based on our system’s ability to detect light and darkness, which send signals to the brain to change hormone levels throughout the body for the appropriate time of day. It affects your digestive system — Dr. Karpowicz’s particular area of expertise — cardiovascular system and blood pressure, metabolism, and general brain activity.
The jumps in time inflict a kind of jet lag on your body which requires time to adjust, with the spring loss of an hour’s sleep and morning daylight having the greatest effect.
“That time is needed for your body to reset all of the clocks in the system of genes throughout your body so that you are in sync with the environment around you,” says Dr. Karpowicz.
“The thing about this clock in your cells is that it never really stops running. It keeps running indefinitely, but it needs to be set so that it’s coordinated with your time of waking, activity and sleeping that you do according to the time of day.”
Dr. Karpowicz notes the same statistic about increased vehicle collisions after the switch to DST, because the entire population is adjusting to a disruption in its cognitive functions and also feeling that vague sensation of fatigue.
Both experts feel there is a public health issue at stake, with Dr. Carrier explaining that overall Canadians simply aren’t getting enough sleep as it is, for two reasons.
“The first is probably the saddest one, in that the younger population and young professionals don’t think that sleep is important,” she says. “They will cut into their sleep time to have what they consider a more productive and efficient life. This has a very big impact; not only on cognitive, emotional and physical health right now, but also studies have shown that chronic sleep deprivation will have long-term effects on your health.
“In the second place, 25 per cent of the population suffers from some sort of chronic sleep disorder, and because sleep is so important, it’s crucial that society finds more solutions to these disorders.”
Although it’s too late now to prepare for the spring time change — Dr. Carrier recommends going to bed 15 or so minutes earlier for a few nights beforehand — you can counteract its effects by being active and getting more light first thing in the morning to kick that circadian rhythm into gear.
But the times may be changing for the time change. This year, the Yukon government announced that after switching to daylight saving time on Sunday, it would not be changing back to standard time in November. Recent polls in British Columbia and Alberta also showed over 90 per cent of the population in those provinces were in favour of sticking to DST.
Both Dr. Carrier and Dr. Karpowicz would like to see the practice come to an end as well, although the latter says he prefers standard time to daylight saving because more light in the morning is more important for maintaining your internal clock.
“I find it much easier to wake up right now because we’ve come through the middle of winter and the sun’s coming up earlier, but now we’re going to shift our clocks earlier and it’s going to be a little harder to get up in the morning,” he says.
“Our systems are really synced with the environment and the problem with daylight saving time is that it’s a little out of sync overall.”