In fact, for some people, their body bristles at the ringing alarm clock for days after the weekend time change. If you’re among this groggy group still reeling from that lost hour, keep reading – sleep medicine expert Dr. Wilfred Pigeon has insights into what’s going on inside you, and how you can cope.
Scripts: In casual conversation, we talk a lot about our “internal clock” – especially this time of year. But, what exactly is it – and how does it work?
Pigeon: Nestled deep in our brain is a bundle of neurons (nerve cells) forming the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or “SCN.” This grouping of nerves steers a whole host of natural “biological rhythms” – including the timing of sleep and wakefulness.
It’s not surprising that light plays so heavily into our feeling either tired or rested, because the nerves composing our SCN are, put simply, “wired” to the retinas in our eye. Nature’s 24-hour light-dark cycle supplies the SCN the critical information it needs to keep our daily rhythms on pace – which the SCN does, in part, by triggering the nearby pineal gland to increase the production and release of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, at precisely the right time for us to make use of it.
To see how delicate the timing of sleep and wake cycles can be, you need only fly across a few time zones and observe what happens. Jet lag (and the poor sleep that ensues for a couple of nights) is essentially the product of a confused SCN. It’s almost like a band keeping pace with an inexperienced drummer; the jet-lagged brain and body really struggle to get back on course.
Scripts: Why is it so much more difficult to “spring ahead” than to “fall back”?
Pigeon: It’s probably because so many of us are chronically sleep-deprived – making it that much more painful to lose an hour, as opposed to gaining one.
Scripts: So, how can you help yourself adjust to the earlier hour more smoothly?
Pigeon: The best advice, really, is to have been proactive and prepared prior to 2 a.m. Sunday morning. I usually recommend setting your clock ahead on the Saturday morning before, instead of waiting until bedtime, as this gives yourself more time to ease into the change.
But now that the clocks have already moved, one of your best bets is getting plenty of nice exercise this week — it just might help wear you out for your earlier bedtime. And as you continue to ease in, it can’t hurt to sip a strong cup of coffee in the mornings, or open the blinds and let sunlight spill into your bedroom as soon as you get up.
Scripts: And of course, on the bedtime end of the equation, it can be difficult to coach ourselves to turn in at this earlier hour. What do you recommend in the evenings?
Pigeon: First, if you are sleepy enough, embrace it! Call it a night. But if you’re not tired, don’t even bother – you’ll just spend that extra hour lying awake in bed frustrated. Give it time – your body will acclimate naturally.
That said, a few tips for better nighttime sleep can never hurt. The cardinal rule, of course, is the maintain a regular bedtime as much as possible, and to avoid naps – which might feel good at the time, but can sometimes make it tricky to sleep later on. As much as possible, avoid stimulating activities immediately before bed – that includes channel and web surfing, exhausting mental feats (like calculating taxes!), and of course, physical exercise. Finally, as much as you can, keep the bedroom reserved for just sleep and sex – not lounging or watching TV.
Scripts: In general, how much sleep do we need on an average night? And if we get too little, how does this affect us physically and emotionally?
Pigeon: Though we’re quick to spout off “eight hours” as the magic number for adequate sleep, the truth is that the numbers are actually a bit fuzzy. Much depends on how sleep quantity (or sleep duration) is measured – and actually, several large surveys have found the overall average sleep duration to consistently come in at just about seven hours per night. What’s more, it may be that we “catch up” on weekends, so not all nights are created equal.
Sleep, of course, is crucial to health – and life! Chronic deprivation can diminish the production of growth hormone, and even disturb our ability to learn and recall information. In fact, over a relatively short time – just a week – the effects of nightly partial sleep deprivation can lead to performance reductions on cognitive and motor tasks that are right on par with the kind of decreases we observe in persons with blood alcohol contents of 0.10 percent! (That’s above the legal driving limit in all U.S. states!)
At the extreme, prolonged total sleep deprivation in laboratory rats has been shown to weaken their ability to fight infection and regulate body temperature – and in extreme cases, has led to death in a matter of weeks. Although this may seem dramatic, it goes to show just how vital sleep is to life.
Dr. Pigeon is the author of Sleep Manual: Training Your Mind & Body to Achieve the Perfect Night’s Sleep, and directs the Sleep & Neurophysiology Research Lab at the University of Rochester Medical Center. To learn more about the facility, click here, or call (585) 275-2900.