The clocks are about to change. Here’s how your body can catch up

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Halloween marks the clocks going back once again, as Daylight Savings Time tries to give us Brits a little more time in the sun in the evenings. While the European Union has given up on Daylight Savings Time, we are still trying to make the most of William Willett’s push, at the turn of the 20th century, to give the country more time in the sun and reduce our energy costs.

But the clocks going back isn’t just a practical change; your body also shifts as a result. A study in Michigan found a spike in heart attacks after the clocks change, and another study found car accidents increase. Strokes were also found to be more common when the clocks change in spring in this Finnish study, though they stress this might be correlation rather than causality. Another study found that judges give harsher sentences the day after the clocks go forward in spring, though again this research is far from damning.

In part, this is due to how changing the clocks affects our circadian rhythm: the timekeeping system used by our bodies to regulate all of its functions. As light is one of the main cues our body uses to regulate our circadian rhythm, changing our days also changes how our bodies function as well. Studies have shown we get less sleep cumulatively even when the clocks deign to give us an extra hour, which influences many areas of our life and how we perform day to day.

Even if you yourself don’t feel too jet-lagged come All Saint’s Day, that doesn’t mean the darkness of winter doesn’t have consequences for your physical and mental health. The days are getting shorter, and even after the Winter Solstice the winter is still cold and gloomy at its worst, and overstuffed with feasts and social engagements at its best. Motivation can be low, schedules hard to maintain, the festive season throwing us off our mojo even if we can survive working out in a perpetual night.

But we at LYMA are all about making sure we perform at the highest level possible. That’s why we make the Supplement we make, and that’s why we think about improving performance on the daily. We wanted to figure out how we can maintain balance and perform fantastically even when all the odds are against us. So we brought together a sleep expert, a therapist, a PT and a doctor to talk you through how to make winter a time for success and satisfaction.

Sleep

Dr Lindsay Browning is a chartered psychologist at Trouble Sleeping and author of Navigating Sleeplessness.

In the winter in the northern hemisphere we get less light during the day both in terms of light intensity and also daylight hours. Our circadian rhythm relies on daytime sunshine and night-time darkness to tell the difference between night and day, and is responsible for telling our bodies when to produce melatonin to help us fall asleep. If we don’t get enough sunlight during the day then we won’t feel as awake and alert during the day, and we won’t produce as much melatonin at night. Also, if we have too much artificial light at night-time, then our bodies won’t think it is bedtime and we won’t produce melatonin to help us go to sleep. Lastly, it is important to remember that the lack of sunshine during the winter months not only affects our sleep; it also affects our mood. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is the winter blues caused by a lack of sunlight making us more sad.

Even though the weather may be cold outside, it is really important to get outside every single day to see natural daylight. It is also important to make the effort to exercise even if it is cold and damp outside. Perhaps choose physical activities that are fun to do in the cold such as ice-skating. Keeping a regular sleep week routine will help you to fall asleep and stay asleep each night. Even though it is tempting to have a long lie-in at the weekends, this is likely to negatively impact your sleep during the week.

Our circadian rhythm absolutely thrives on regularity. Even moving our bedtime and wake time by a couple of hours at the weekend can give us social jet-lag, making it harder to fall asleep and wake up for work on Monday morning. The clock change, which gives us an extra hour’s sleep on Sunday morning, may make it harder to fall asleep on Sunday night and harder to wake up Monday morning because you are changing the regular circadian rhythm that you have been used to.

If you are worried about adjusting to the clock change, or you have children that you would like to help adjust to the new time in advance: try moving your bed time ½ an hour later than your usual time on Friday night and waking up ½ an hour later on Saturday morning, and then going to bed 1 hour later than your usual time on Saturday night, leaving you to wake at your usual time on Sunday morning as the clocks change during the night. Alternately, don’t change your bedtime at all in advance, and simply enjoy an extra hour’s sleep on Sunday morning when the clocks change overnight.

Productivity

Dr Tamer Rezk runs health and wellness company Phycore, has worked in the medical concierge sector, and is an NIHR Clinical Lecturer based at the UCL Division of Medicine.

If you’re constantly relying on your external reality, and your happiness is based on the sun being out? It only takes a moment for the weather to change, and that leaves you very vulnerable. There is a difference between reality and your perception of reality: if you’re constantly looking to your external environment to get that feeling, it’s never going to fully deliver.

Besides, the earth has seasons: winter, spring, summer, autumn. You can't harvest your crops all year round. For 3-4 months the earth is barren, and the earth is healing and resting. If you've had a busy summer, a difficult and successful time at work, taken on personal challenges, family challenges, sickness or illness, recognise you can't expect to perform 365 days a year in the same way. Mother Nature doesn't, so take solace and education from a planet that's much wiser than us and achieves a lot more than us.

Fitness

Damien Coates is a fitness expert and founder of The Lean Body Project

Dark nights and early mornings mean you're not necessarily going to want to get out of bed. But if you want to hit your goals, see results, stay healthy, you just need to get it done as long as you're willing, able, and not ill.

If you're run down and unwell, stay away from the gym. You can still stay on top of your fitness with walks. Walking is highly underrated for its mental health benefits, for burning calories, for getting outside and getting some natural light, so it's good for your immune system, getting vitamin D and fresh air.

If staying healthy is important to you, you just need to break that down into small chunks, and then down into daily chunks. When you realise it's not such a huge deal, and you're not focusing on the end goal but rather the daily steps, you realise it's not too difficult to achieve. When you do that consistently over time, it adds up to massive results. If it doesn't feel like a huge thing to do it's harder to get demotivated.

Keeping on top of your health and fitness is important, even if you're not feeling motivated. You won't always be motivated, but you can always be disciplined. Even if that means sometimes knowing when not to push for a personal best, just ticking the box and getting it done.

Mental Health

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and wellbeing expert

Rituals give us a lot of comfort, and rituals can be a very good way to calm the mind. Generally, when we have a lot to think about, or we feel anxious or overwhelmed, having a structure - even making a cup of tea - can be a ritual. You boil the kettle, put the teabag in, you enjoy the tea. The ritual gives you 10 minutes of headspace in the day.

There are also sometimes very practical answers that people need, and we get confused and presume there must be a medical solution: if it's dark and you want to go running? Use a head torch. But the problem could also be psychological, and in winter it could be Seasonal Affective Disorder. As the days get darker, as we produce more melatonin and we get less Vitamin D, that can cause us problems that mean we don't want to go out and exercise. There are practical ways to solve this: get a SAD Lamp which emulates the sunlight and boosts you up. But if you know exercise is good for you, wrap up warm and be mindful of icy roads.

To switch to a winter routine more comfortably, think of the positive things the season brings us. There are predictable things about winter: we're going to see Christmas lights; that's pretty. We might hear upbeat music; that's fun. I look forward to walking my dog on the grass when its crunchy and crisp, and there are certain things that you can predict in a cold season that are beautiful to look forward to.

The funny thing is, we'll finally switch to that and - come March - we'll ask how we get used to being hot, bothered and uncomfortable. Having the seasons is something we really embrace if we think about it. Search a little deeper for what you need, for what's meaningful, and that often means taking the headspace to do this. Which, in this fast paced world, we don't often have the time to do. That's where creating a ritual, even making the tea, can help.

Originally published Oct 28, 2021.
Written by David Levesley.

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