HEALTH ISSUES OF SLEEP: NEW GET TO BED SERIES: THE A TO Zs OF SLEEP: 1ST IN SERIES: APRIL ARTICLE
Did you remember to set your clocks ahead on March 13th? Do I hear a collective groan at the thought of losing an hour of sleep? There’s apparently good reason to debate the concept. First, some history. How did daylight savings time (DST) start? Many think it was started by the agriculture industry to give farmers more daylight hours to spend working the fields. Farmers have been very vocal about wanting to do away with the practice, which interferes with their routines. In 1784 Benjamin Franklin suggested the concept to alter Parisian’s sleeping habits in order to save money on lamp oil and candles. A New Zealand entomologist, in 1895, proposed changing clocks by 2 hours so that he could have more hours to collect insects. Then, in 1907, a British builder thought that clocks should be moved forward by 20 minutes every Sunday in April to increase recreation time and save costs on lighting. DST was first instituted in Canada in 1908, followed by Germany in 1916, during World War I, to conserve fuel. The practice was adopted by many European countries, and then by the United States in 1918 to save resources needed for the war and to extend the working day. The Standard Time Act was repealed and reinstated often, giving local communities the choice to observe the practice or not. In 1966 Congress, attempting to simplify the process, enacted the Uniform Time Act, which established a set DST date, but gave states the option for exemption. Hawaii and Arizona are currently the only states that don’t change from standard to daylight savings time. Now, it appears, there’s another effort to abolish DST. We’ll see! The practice does save energy and daylight during the spring and summer months, during which the extra hour translates into more time for outdoor activities. There exists an exhaustive amount of information on the detrimental effects of DST to our physical and mental health. I’ll attempt to consolidate the research. First, to the health issues.
The American Academy of Neurology relates studies indicating that the risk of stroke rises 8% during the first 2 days after the beginning of DST. The American Heart Association cites research showing a 24% rise in daily heart attack counts, as well as an increase in episodes of atrial fibrillation, associated with the DST transition. Research conducted at the University of Colorado-Boulder points to the fact that, in the week following the DST changeover, there is an associated 6% increase in fatal automobile accidents. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that, though DST doesn’t necessarily cause mental health conditions, the shift appears to worsen existing psychological issues, as there is an 11% rise in the number of hospital visits for depression. Neuroscientists point to an increase in anxiety, suicidal thoughts, seasonal affective disorder, bipolar disorder and substance abuse problems triggered by the change from standard time to daylight savings time. WHY does this happen? It has to do with the disruption to our circadian rhythms.
Circadian rhythms are inherent natural bodily patterns that follow a 24hour cycle. You can think of them as the body’s internal clock. These processes are controlled by genetically coded proteins that accumulate in our cells and help activate feelings of wakefulness, alertness and sleepiness by responding to light and dark. The proteins build up in cells overnight, then break down during the day, affecting when we sleep and how acutely our brain functions. Circadian rhythms are regulated by an area in our brains. Attempts to control our circadian rhythms,
such as with shift work, jet lag, light from electronic devices at night and the DST transition, interrupt the natural light-dark cycle, leading to a disturbance in our sleep and, thus, our health. Skipping a night of sleep completely disrupts the circadian rhythm, throwing the next day’s schedule and performance totally out of whack by altering how sharply the brain functions.
There’s obviously so much more to sleep than we originally knew. It’s not only a state that our bodies crave in order to recuperate from the day’s activities and reenergize for those ahead. It’s a necessary function that allows our brains and bodies to function in a more effective, efficient manner, if we spend the recommended amount of time, between 7-9 hours according to the National Sleep Foundation, doing so. Bah! You say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead – I have important tasks to accomplish!” This old adage is proving to be untrue, as well as dangerous, since insufficient sleep has been shown through research to lead to a shorter life span, diminished memory, impaired learning capabilities, altered immune function, increased risks of mental and physical disorders, and a myriad of societal woes. For too many people the ability to get a good night’s sleep is elusive, despite their best efforts to do so. We will discuss this aspect, but, first, let us focus on what sleep does for us.
Sleep has been studied extensively since the first sleep lab was opened at the University of Chicago in the 1920s. Neuroscientists and sleep medicine physicians have been analyzing the characteristics of sleep and the effects of chronic sleep deprivation ever since. It has been well established, through many scientific studies, that sleep is not just a state in which the brain is “turned off.” Very much the contrary. During sufficient sleep, with its different stages, the brain accomplishes a multitude of tasks. MRIs performed during sleep demonstrate evidence of energetic brain activities, when all manner of metabolic functions are undertaken and enhanced. Our abilities to learn and memorize new material, as well as to make reasonable decisions, is dependent upon the sleep state. Sleep benefits our psychological health by fine tuning our emotions, giving us the capability to deal with challenges in a levelheaded way. Sleep also bathes our brains with a beneficial stew of neurochemicals that help rid us of painful memories. Physically, sleep boosts immune function, fights malignancies, and prevents infection. Insufficient sleep has been linked to the onset of type 2 diabetes and obesity through its impact on hormonal factors affecting glucose balance and appetite. How does this state, that seems to come so naturally to babies and teenagers, but not to time-pressed adults, do all these wonderful things? This is just the tip of the iceberg. In upcoming columns we will discuss just how sleep impacts our bodies and our minds for the efficient and healthy interactions necessary for life.