Sunday’s sunset looms over the campus, and rays of gold fall through my window. Daylight slips away quietly, and I can already feel my energy, slowly but surely, depleting. “The day has ended, and it’s time to go to sleep,” my brain seems to tell me. Yet as I turn towards my clock, it only reads 4:30 p.m. In these moments, I anticipate an equivalent in the spring: that one Sunday where an hour of sleep gets sucked away, leaving my body confused, exhausted, scrambling to adjust.
First implemented in the US with the Standard Time Act of 1918, daylight savings time (DST) was a wartime measure in the interest of adding more daylight hours to conserve wartime energy resources. Implemented inconsistently over the decades in between, permanent daylight savings time was enacted for the winter of 1974. There were complaints of children and working people commuting in pitch darkness during the winter months, and it was repealed a year later. After various adjustments, it soon became the form we experience today, where most of the nation sets the clock forward at 2 am on the second Sunday of March and turns the clock back at the same time on the first Sunday of November.
In recent years, there has been much debate around the remaining necessity of DST. It is a common myth in the United States that DST was first implemented for the economic benefit of farmers. In reality, farmers have been one of the strongest lobbying groups against DST since it was first implemented. The factors that influence farming schedules, such as morning dew and dairy cattle’s readiness to be milked, are ultimately dictated by the sun, so the time change introduces unnecessary challenges.
As an international student who grew up in a nation with a universal timezone, the practice of switching to and from DST has long appeared to be paradoxical. While it was started to conserve power, DST only forces our internal clocks to compete with our watches, in turn depleting our bodily energy.
From the perspective of public health, in 2015, researchers compared the rate of strokes during the week after daylight saving to the rate two weeks before or two weeks after. Shockingly, the rate was 8% higher the first 2 days after the shift, and people with cancer were 25% more likely to have a stroke during this period than other times of year. As shown by a 2020 study, interruptions to our circadian rhythm can also impair focus and judgment, causing fatal traffic accidents to increase by 6% in the United States during daylight saving time.
Though “falling back” in the fall gives you a chance to catch up on lost sleep, it can also be a difficult adjustment, according to Ramiz Fargo, MD, medical director for the Sleep Disorders Center and a sleep medicine doctor at Loma Linda University Health. Particularly, the loss of daylight makes it difficult for people with mood disorders—one study showed that hospitals reported an 11% increase in depressive symptoms just after the fall time change.
Earlier this year, the Sunshine Protection Act passed in the US Senate, which would make daylight saving time, the time used in the summer, permanent starting next year. Though this brought cheers from many Americans who loathe the time change, it alarmed sleep experts as a worst-case scenario.
Social time, sun time, and circadian time are patterns that rule our lives. The numbers on our clocks represent social time; the level of daylight produced by the sun is the definition of sun time, and circadian time is the tempo our body follows, dictating when we crave sleep and wake. Circadian time and sun time both influence our production of cortisol, but this biological desire to sleep is sometimes impeded by social time, which regulates our work schedules and other obligations. Ideally, all three of these clocks should be in alignment.
On average, standard time makes it more likely that social time, sun time and circadian time will align. Experts argue, however, that permanent daylight saving time, even more than the current fall-spring time change, could result in poorer sleep year-round. Permanent daylight saving time moves social time to an hour earlier than standard time, and so sleep researchers argue that it results in the largest misalignment among the three clocks.
The sadness lies in the fact that DST is unlikely to completely evaporate from our lives anytime soon. As Wellesley College students are already struggling to tackle the next midterm, searching for more windows of quality sleep, we must seek ways to make time transitions easier. As stated by Dr. Fargo, it is helpful to make slight adjustments to your schedule in the days leading up to the time change, going to bed 15-20 minutes earlier. Avoiding alcohol, caffeine, daytime naps, heavy meals and screentime before bed can also help combat sleep deprivation. Perhaps as we work towards taking care of ourselves, politicians may work towards making policies that are advised by thorough contemplation and founded facts.