March 11, 2011— -- This weekend, the clocks spring forward into daylight saving time -- the bittersweet adjustment that brightens the evenings while wreaking havoc on sleep schedules.
For most people, the shift is a nuisance. But for some, it provokes weeks of sleep deprivation that take a heavy toll on mood and productivity, according to Dr. Phil Gehrman, clinical director of the University of Pennsylvania's Behavioral Sleep Medicine program.
Since researchers began studying the effects of daylight saving time in the 1970s, the missing hour has been blamed for spikes in car accidents and workplace injuries, as well as dips in stock market returns.
"People think, 'It's only an hour.' But considering that most people aren't getting enough sleep to begin with, they often underestimate what an hour can do," Gehrman said.
The results are similar to jet lag. But no one gets jet lag when they lose an hour traveling one time zone east.
"That's because there's more light in the morning, and that helps you adjust your body clock," said Dr. Alfred Lewy, chairman of psychiatry and director of the Sleep and Mood Disorders Laboratory at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore. "But with daylight saving time, the new light-dark cycle works against your body clock. The extra light at the end of the day shifts it the wrong way."
The body clock is a cluster of neurons deep inside the brain in an area called the hypothalamus. It generates the circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle, that spans roughly 24 hours. But it's not precise.
"It needs a signal every day to reset it," Lewy said.
The reset signal is light, which comes in through the eyes and transmits signals -- separate from those involved in vision -- that update the clock. But when the sleep-wake and light-dark cycles don't line up, people feel out-of-sync, tired and even depressed.
But there are easy ways to help your body clock adjust and avoid the spring-forward crash.
Getting some early morning sun Saturday and Sunday can help the brain's circadian rhythm line up with the new light-dark cycle. But this means getting up at dawn. And sleeping by a window won't cut it, Lewy said. The sunlight needs to be direct.
The warmer weather and later sunset make it easy to stay outside longer. But resisting the temptation to linger in the light Sunday and Monday also can help the body clock adjust, Lewy said.
Melatonin: The Dracula Hormone
While light synchronizes the body clock in the morning, the hormone melatonin updates it at night.
"People call it the Dracula hormone -- it only comes out at night," Lewy said.
The exact function of the hormone, produced by the pea-sized pineal gland in the middle of the brain, is unclear. But it can activate melatonin receptors on the neurons of the body clock, acting as a "chemical signal for darkness," Lewy said.
"A melatonin pill can stimulate those same receptors," Lewy said. "And if you take it during the day, you can trick the neurons into thinking it's night and shift the clock."
Melatonin can help blind people regulate their sleep-wake cycle in the absence of light. It also has been shown to have positive effects on jet lag, seasonal affective disorder and depression.
Lewy said a low-dose (no more than 0.5 mg) of melatonin taken a few hours before sunset could help the realign the sleep-wake and light-dark cycles when the clocks move forward.
Because it is sold as a dietary supplement in the U.S., melatonin is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Gehrman thinks melatonin is worth trying for people who struggle adjusting to daylight saving time. But Gehrman urges caution, too.
"I think there's a belief that because it's herbal it's completely safe. But people need to be aware that it could interact with other drugs," Gehrman said.
Maintaining a regular schedule, including regular meal times, also can help regulate circadian rhythms. And limiting caffeine throughout the day and exercise before bed also can improve sleep, Gehrman said.
"You really need an hour of wind-down time," he said.