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Daylight-saving time could sabotage your sleep schedule

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  • Study: Traffic accidents spike on the Sunday that ends daylight-saving time
  • According to another study, the fall time change may lower heart attack risk
  • There are small things you can do to ease the transition to the new time
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By Kate Stinchfield
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The thought of gaining an extra hour of sleep at the end of daylight-saving time may make you giddy with excitement -- but the time switch could also be a trigger for nighttime sleep and daytime alertness problems. Whether you have an existing sleep condition or you've always gotten regular shut-eye, there's a chance you could be hurting once the clock falls back on Sunday.

It's time to "fall back:" The end of daylight-saving time comes this Sunday at 2 a.m.

"The fundamental problem we have in our current 24/7 society is that everyone is already somewhat sleep deprived," says Patrick J. Strollo Jr., M.D., medical director of the University of Pittsburgh's Sleep Disorder Program. "When we make even small adjustments in sleep schedules, that can have a negative impact." Read about celebrity sleep secrets, and what you can learn from them

End of daylight-saving time sends traffic accidents soaring

Contrary to popular belief, that extra early-morning hour doesn't necessarily mean more sleep. In fact, many people use the time change as an excuse to stay out an hour later that night, says Dr. Strollo; that can translate to trouble when sleepy drivers hit the road later that day. A 2003 study by researchers at Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities analyzed a 21-year period and found a significant spike in traffic accidents on the Sunday that ended daylight-saving time.

Even for a few days after the time switch, motorists should exercise extra caution behind the wheel, especially commuters who have worked a long day. Combining dark roads with end-of-day exhaustion and stress is a recipe for disaster, but preventive measures can help. A short nap is the best solution, though it's not realistic in most workplaces. "If you don't have any issues with insomnia, coffee or another caffeinated beverage can also help you with your commute home," says Dr. Strollo.

Drowsy drivers aren't the only ones who should watch out. The sudden loss of daylight in the evenings sends a pedestrian's risk skyrocketing, according to a seven-year study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. They found that after daylight-saving time ended in a typical October, the risk of pedestrian fatalities (per mile walked) jumped 186 percent, before dropping 21 percent on average in December. The researchers chalked this up not just to darker roadways, but also to drivers having a difficult time adjusting to the end of daylight-saving time.

(On the bright side, the fall time change may lower your risk of heart attack -- at least temporarily. Swedish scientists recently found that heart attacks dropped the Monday after a time change, possibly because people were getting an extra hour of sleep over the weekend.)

'Tis the season for added fatigue

Sunday's switchover kicks off a cold, dark season, which can leave you lethargic and longing to stay under the covers, even if you've never had sleep problems in the past. Earlier sunsets and long, dark evenings can make fatigue worse, and you may find yourself dragging.

Use the end of daylight-saving time to your advantage: If you've been struggling with overscheduled days and sleep deprivation, spend that extra hour in bed this weekend and use it as a chance to catch up. If you have insomnia or are prone to sleep problems, however, any change in your schedule -- even an extra hour in bed -- might perpetuate restlessness. Read about financial stress and insomnia: should you try a sleeping pill?

Stay up an hour later than normal, suggests J. Todd Arnedt, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology director of the Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Michigan. "If someone is used to sleeping from 11 to 7, one strategy would be for the individual to stay up until 12, set the clock to 11 p.m. when getting into bed, and then get up at 7 a.m. the next day," he says.

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Whatever type of sleeper you are, you can use the time change as a starting point for a more consistent schedule. Instead of hitting the snooze button relentlessly next week, drag yourself out of bed in the morning and get moving. "The benefit of the end of daylight-saving is that we have more morning light," says Dr. Strollo, and that extra hour of early light can help regulate and strengthen your circadian rhythm. "Light at dawn tends to suppress melatonin, so by getting outside each morning and walking around, you can suppress your sleepiness."

Advice for parents

The end of daylight-saving time can also spell trouble for the parents of small children. Kids don't follow the clock: They fall asleep when they are tired and wake up once they've had enough rest. If you're already skimping on sleep as it is, the last thing you want is a kid who's up an hour earlier in the mornings. Start adjusting your child's sleep schedule before it becomes a problem. "Wake them up 15 minutes earlier each morning approaching the change in the clock," says Dr. Strollo.

Think ahead to March

Traditionally, the November time change is much easier on our system than the March adjustment, in which we lose an hour overnight. After this "spring forward" change, suddenly it stays light into prime time and is darker when we wake up, leading people to naturally want to stay up later and sleep in longer. When you're faced with this change next year, experts suggest planning ahead.

Go to bed about 15 to 20 minutes earlier each night, for a few nights before the time change, recommends the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. This gives your body a chance to adjust to your new schedule, and you're less likely to feel restless in the nights afterward. On Saturday night of the time switch, set your clocks ahead in the early part of the night -- so you lose an hour of wakefulness instead of sleep -- and go to bed at your normal time according to those clocks, not the television schedule or the time on your cell phone.

If the fall or spring time changes cause sleep disruptions that last longer than a few weeks, visit your doctor. You may be able to talk through the issues that are keeping you awake and develop better sleep habits to help your body adapt to a regular schedule. Or, your doctor might prescribe a short-term sleep aid to get you back on track. Read about the potential side effects of prescription sleep drugs

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Copyright Health Magazine 2009

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