The recent transition from daylight saving to standard time brought the year’s first early evening sunset, marking the onset of shorter days that come with winter.
As the daylight hours wane, many have taken to the internet to exchange strategies for combating the “winter blues”—a colloquial term for the downturn in mood that often accompanies the colder, darker days.
The shift in time, as well as the winter season’s brief days, can have significant health implications, according to experts. From disrupting the circadian rhythm to triggering more severe conditions like seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the reduced daylight can lead to various health challenges.
Dr. Aarti Grover, the medical director at Tufts Medical Center’s Center for Sleep Medicine, suggests it typically takes about a week for individuals to acclimate to the change. She advises modifying certain lifestyle practices to ease the transition into winter and contends that a persistent struggle to adapt to limited light could indicate deeper issues.
“It’s not just about the time change,” Grover cautions, highlighting the importance of not overlooking other potential mood influencers during the darker months.
In light of this, understanding how daylight influences our biological systems, and learning how to effectively adjust to earlier sunsets as winter approaches, become crucial.
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The Health Impact of Clock Changes
The debate around daylight saving and standard time often centers on preferences, but a consensus among health professionals suggests that standard time may be more beneficial for our health.
Dr. Oren Cohen, an assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, emphasizes that standard time generally coincides with the body’s natural circadian rhythm. Unlike daylight saving time, which extends evening light, standard time offers morning brightness that aids in waking up and darkness in the evening conducive to sleep.
The importance of light in the morning for stimulating wakefulness and darkness for promoting sleep cannot be overstated, according to Cohen. He points out that our societal obligations require us to wake up at specific times, and to support sleep health, morning light exposure is essential.
Despite the dislike for the early nightfall during the shift from daylight saving to standard time in the autumn, this transition is favored for health compared to the springtime change.
Dr. Kenneth Lee of UChicago Medicine likens the clock change to a mild form of jet lag, noting that adjusting to standard time is generally less challenging for the body than the spring shift.
Although reverting to standard time is associated with health benefits and an hour more of sleep, the biannual clock changes can disrupt the sleep cycles of many, particularly those already struggling with their sleep schedules. Cohen points out that these adjustments can create a period of vulnerability for those trying to maintain a regular sleep pattern.
Challenges of Shorter Days for Mental Health
The shift to standard time aligns better with natural sleep cycles, yet the shorter, darker days of late fall and winter can be difficult for some. Grover notes that individuals prone to seasonal mood disturbances are particularly vulnerable during these times, as reduced sunlight can lower serotonin, a key mood-regulating hormone.
Sunlight is also crucial for vitamin D synthesis, which plays a role in managing serotonin and melatonin levels—the latter being critical for sleep. The imbalance of these chemicals is a suspected driver in winter-pattern seasonal affective disorder (SAD), characterized by depression, anxiety, lethargy, social withdrawal, and altered sleep and appetite.
Those with existing mood disorders, such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, are more likely to experience such seasonal challenges.
Cohen mentions that the transition to winter is even more taxing for night owls with a delayed sleep phase, as they naturally get less sunlight than early risers.
The impact of reduced daylight extends beyond those with SAD; it can subtly lower the spirits of many. A 2022 survey revealed that nearly 40% of Americans feel a mood drop during winter months, indicating a widespread case of the “winter blues” that, while not as severe as SAD, still affects well-being.
Lee points out that these effects are less about the change to standard time and more about the overall reduction in daylight during winter, with notable consequences on mood and mental health.
Adjusting to Shorter Days and Winter Darkness
The shift back to standard time and the encroaching winter darkness is a transition phase that typically requires a few days of adjustment for most people.
Lee notes that while some adapt within days to the time change, others may take longer. Experts suggest strategies to mitigate the effects of the shorter days.
One method is the use of light boxes, which Cohen says can help mitigate mood dips and assist with seasonal affective disorder, as well as aid in adapting to the new time. However, he emphasizes that natural light is superior. A brief morning walk to soak in natural sunlight can make a significant difference.
Cohen also highlights the importance of physical activity during the winter, which can stimulate endorphin release and promote better sleep—both of which are beneficial for mood during the darker months.
Grover stresses the importance of keeping a regular sleep routine, suggesting even the setting of an alarm to signal the start of winding down for the night.
Lee and Cohen acknowledge that while the early darkness of standard time can pose mental health challenges, it’s not inherently negative. Cohen points out that the earlier sunsets can serve as a cue for people to refine their sleep routines, potentially easing the struggle to fall asleep during the lighter summer evenings.
However, if sleep or mood disturbances persist beyond the usual adjustment period, seeking advice from a psychologist, sleep specialist, or another healthcare provider is advisable.
Cohen reminds us that the impact of seasonal changes is highly personal, underscoring the need for individualized health and wellness plans to navigate this potentially challenging time.
- What is seasonal affective disorder?
- More Americans prefer daylight saving time to standard time – CBS News poll
- Effects of vitamin D on mood and sleep in the healthy population: Interpretations from the serotonergic pathway
- New APA Healthy Minds Monthly Poll Finds that Nearly 40% of Americans Face Declining Mood in Winter