How to get ahead of (and cope with) daylight saving time

It's just an hour. An hour that can throw a healthy sleeper’s Circadian rhythm out of whack.
by Nicole Spector /  / Updated 
Image: The glow of an alarm clock in the middle of the night.
Clocks get pushed up an hour at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, March 11. John Brecher / for NBC News
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On Sunday, March 11 (at 2 a.m. to be exact), it’s time to push our clocks up an hour, so that it will actually be 3 a.m. It’s a seemingly minor transition, but one that has long attracted controversy. A 2012 survey by Rasmussen Reports found that as many as 40 percent of Americans were in favor of eliminating Daylight Saving Time, and over the years, certain cities, such as Alberta, Canada, have lobbied to scrap it.

Hey, it’s just an hour, what’s the big deal? Well, any of us who has dealt with insomnia or poor sleep can vouch for how valuable that hour can be, and even one hour’s loss can throw a healthy sleeper’s Circadian rhythm out of whack. What can we do to prepare for the change, and acclimate quickly? We consulted sleep experts to build a plan.

5 things to do the day before

1. Make a to-do list or plan a fun trip to beat the anxiety

One of the biggest hurdles round DST for me isn’t the loss of the hour itself (though that is definitely tough), but the anxiety of knowing I’m losing (or have lost) an hour. Often I can’t sleep well the Saturday before as I wait in dread to see 2 a.m. become 3 a.m., and then on Sunday I feel scatterbrained and nervous about starting a new week.

Dr. Shilpi Agarwal, a family medicine physician, recommends planning something exciting such as a vacation and to think about this at night when our anxiety tends to flare up. “Getting excited is the best way to artificially boost feel-good chemicals to go to bed without anxiety,” she says, while Chris Brantner, a certified sleep science coach at SleepZoo suggests making a to-do list for the following Monday before going to bed on Sunday night. “Research shows that this can help you offload worries of the next day, which can help reduce the anxiety that often comes with Mondays, thereby helping you get to sleep more easily,” says Bratner.

2. Set an alarm for an earlier bedtime

A tactic that Agarwal swears by not only for her patients, but also for herself, is setting an alarm that tells you when it’s time for bed.

“You can easily get lost in what you're doing, so setting an alarm can help remind you that it’s time to wind down,” Agarwal tells NBC News BETTER. “Once the alarm goes off, wrap up what you’re doing, put down [any screened devices] and stay off them for at least 20 minutes before bedtime.”

3. Shut off screens even earlier than normal

The blue light emitted from screens is infamously bad for sleep hygiene as it can throw off our Circadian rhythm. Agarwal recommends turning smartphones and TVs off even earlier than normal (by a half hour or so) in the days leading up to the time change. The trick here is to try and fall asleep ahead of schedule so that you can make up for that lost hour in advance. Brantner recommends doing something relaxing instead like yoga poses or reading a book. “Anything that calms you down,” he says.

4. Tuck the kids in earlier and monitor their moods, appetite

Getting your kid to wind down for bed can be a challenge, but it’s important that they make up for the potential sleep loss, too. You should also cut their access off to screens earlier than normal (“10 to 20 minutes earlier, and nothing with blue light for 30 to 40 minutes before bed,” Agarwal says). “If they go to bed at 8, try and see if you can get them lying down by 7:30. Avoid sugary snacks, and have them skip the dessert before [the time change]. Kids naturally will take the sleep they need, but it’s important to recognize signs of tiredness: If they're crankier than normal, or pickier with foods, they could be tired. If that’s the case, let them sleep a little bit longer.”

5. No caffeine after 12 p.m.

Just as you should be reducing your little ones’ sugar intake, you should be capping your caffeine consumption. Agarwal recommends no caffeine after 12 p.m. starting this Sunday. “A lot of people drink coffee later in the afternoon and swear it doesn't affect their sleep, but studies have shown that even if you can go to bed immediately after caffeine, you don't get into deep sleep as quickly, so it’s a good idea to avoid it.”

5 things to do the day (and week) after

1. Have a protein-heavy breakfast and say no to sugary carbs

You may be extra hungry for some less than healthy foods this coming Sunday and Monday. That’s because, as Agarwal puts it “no matter how you cut it, this time shift is harsh, and you will probably feel tired.” And when we’re tired, our appetites tend to change. We’re likely to crave carbs and sugars to give us the zing we’re lacking. “These foods can quickly give us energy but they’ll likely cause you to crash earlier in the day. Stick to a protein-heavy breakfast and lighter meals the rest of the day,” advises Brantner.

But what if Monday comes and you’re completely exhausted at your desk and barely half way through the day? Wouldn’t a latte help you make it? Yes, but not for long.

“You get tired and reach for that sugary caffeine concocted venti beverage, but that will only make the afternoon slump worse,” says Agarwal. “I can’t name a study that backs this up but I promise it works: eat an apple as a snack to quickly wake you up; you’ll get the pick-me-up you need in the sweetness, as well as some great fiber.”

2. Decline the wine

Think a glass of wine after dinner will help you fall asleep easier? It just might, but it could make the rest of your sleep cycle a nightmare.

“A glass or two of wine may help you get sleepy, but what people don't realize is that it messes up the second half of your sleep cycle,” says Agarwal. “Your body starts processing alcohol as a stimulant halfway through the night, which causes you to wake up. So stay away from it the night before [the time change].”

3. Resist the nap (unless your eyes are literally closing)

The Monday after the DST switch has been coined National Napping Day for obvious reasons. We’re just desperate to nab that hour back, but unless you’re doing your routine power nap, you should avoid napping this coming week.

“I think naps are more detrimental personally, but if you're so exhausted you can't keep your eyes open, take a nap,” says Agarwal. “But only 15 to 20 minutes. A long nap risks getting you into deep sleep which can throw off your sleep cycle.”

4. Talk a walk, even if it's just around the house or office

Research also shows that adding exercise — even a short walk or climb up some stairs in your building — can help give you a little boost of energy during the workday.

5. Take this opportunity to slow down as well as to evaluate your sleep hygiene

Agarwal notes that even if you implement all the above, it may take up to a week for you to fully adjust. If you’re feeling really sluggish on Monday, take the opportunity to get some less mentally strenuous work done.

“Recognize that you may be less productive and use that to your benefit,” says Agarwal. “Make a list of things you need to get done later in the week, take a walk for 15 minutes and do physical exercise — things that don’t take much brain power.”

You may also want to consider using this time change as a means to acknowledge and repair poor sleeping habits. “Springing forward may really throw us for a loop because we're already sleep deprived,” asserts Brantner. Indeed the average American only gets about six and a half hours of sleep per night — less than the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended 7 to 9 hours. Chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to a number of health problems, so we may want to keep these sleep tips handy every day of the year.

CORRECTION (March 10, 2018, 11:30 P.M. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled, on second reference, the last names of two experts. They are Dr. Shilpi Agarwal, not Agrwal, and Chris Brantner, not Bratner.

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