The experts advise on how we go forwards and not just backwards.
7 Minute ReadFeature
by David Levesley
The autumn equinox mark the days the clocks go backwards an hour. Known as Daylight Savings Time, the clock change is an effort to give the northern hemisphere a little more time in the sun and reduce our energy costs.
But the clocks changing isn’t just a practical move; 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.
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 fiddle about with our sleep patterns, which influences many areas of our life and how we perform day to day.
If you want to figure out how you can maintain balance and perform at your best, we asked a sleep expert, a therapist, a PT and a doctor to talk us through how to make the clock change a time for success and satisfaction.
How to adjust your sleep times
Dr Lindsay Browning is a chartered psychologist at Trouble Sleeping and author of Navigating Sleeplessness.
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 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. A lack of sunshine, particularly 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.
It is really important to get outside every single day to see natural daylight, and the recommendation is thirty minutes at least every morning to wake nervous system up, and signal that this is the start of the day. It is also important to make the effort to exercise even if it is cold and damp outside. Keeping a regular sleep 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 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.
Our top tip: 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 than your usual time on Friday and Saturday nights before the clock change before the clock change, and waking up ½ an hour earlier/later on Saturday morning.
Productivity has seasons too
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 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.
That said, the earth has seasons for a reason: 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.
Our top tip: autumn brings the rewards of your hard work, it is a time to recall the seeds you may have planted during the spring equinox and get some rest.
Fitness in day light is key
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 the arrival of light mornings and longer daylight can be just the spur we need.
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. Spring time gives you all the excuses you need to admire the new blossom and gathering light. Winter dusk can be an equally magical time.
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 just ticking the box and getting it done.
Our top tip: to stay healthy, break your fitness 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.
Mental health and rituals
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. Clocks changing can sometimes seem like disrupted rituals, but all it takes a little reorganisation. 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. Days getting lighter? Get outside and make the most of your natural Vitamin D source. 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 or spring 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. In spring, the wildlife and flowers burst into life, so why not get out and enjoy them.
Our top tip: Having the seasons is something to really embrace. 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.