IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Fall back: Time to reset your clock

It’s that time of year again, when most Americans gain an extra hour’s sleep setting their clocks back. Here are answers to your questions about the time switch — and about sleep.
/ Source:

It’s that time of year again, when pumpkins sprout on doorsteps, the winter coats come out of the closet, and most Americans get an extra hour's sleep by resetting their clocks. (Remember? Spring forward, fall back.)

The change officially takes place at 2 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 29, but most Americans tend to turn their clocks back an hour before going to bed Saturday night. (Others may forget and arrive an hour early at church or brunch.) The time switch marks the end to daylight-saving time, which started in April.

The idea behind daylight-saving time — or summer time, as it's known in other parts of the world — is to use the extended daylight hours during the warmest part of the year to best advantage. Timekeepers shift some of that extra sun time from the early morning (when timekeepers need their shut-eye) to the evening (when they play softball). The shift reduces the need for lighting during the evening, and some studies have shown that results in energy savings as well.

With the clocks turned back, it will be lighter (or at least less dark) in the morning, and trick-or-treaters will have a darker night.

Not everybody goes along with this plan, as folks in places like Arizona and Hawaii know quite well. In March, with the rest of the country, marking the first time in 30 years that the whole state observed daylight savings.

Around the world, Canada and the members of the European Union operate similar summer-time shifts. And yes, some countries in the Southern Hemisphere move their clocks forward an hour at this time of year, in time for the coming summer there.

Still with us? Daylight-saving time soon will last even longer in the United States, thanks to a law passed last summer. Beginning in 2007, most Americans will turn their clocks forward on the second Sunday of March and back on the first Sunday of November.

Some in Congress had wanted to extend it even further, citing the potential for further energy savings. But after a variety of opponents from religious groups to educational organizations complained of schedule and safety concerns, lawmakers dropped that plan.

So savor the extra hour of sleep. Starting in 2007, you'll have to wait an extra week to get it. Meantime, here are answers to common questions about sleep.

When we wake up, why do we have crust in our eyes? - S.S.
“Eye crusts” are the leftover protein and fat from tears that have dried up. Tears have three components:

  • Salty water, which comes from the tear gland behind the upper outer corner of our eye.
  • Protein, secreted by the conjuctiva, which is the clear film that covers the eye.
  • And fat, which comes from ducts in the eyelids.

Tears do lots of jobs. They clean the eye. They fill in tiny imperfections in the surface of the cornea, which needs to be perfectly smooth for maximal vision. They also deliver nutrients to the cornea, which has to be clear to let light through to the iris, and therefore has no blood vessels to deliver a “food supply.” And of course tears flow at times of emotion, when the tear glands power up and produce more salt water.

At night, with our eyes closed and protected, we don’t display emotion, and with our eyes closed we don’t get dirt in our eyes. So we don’t make tears. Small amounts of the mixture already on the surface of the eye seep out, but without a fresh supply of liquid from the tear gland, the fat and protein dry up.

Why does your breath smell so bad when you wake up? - S.B. and A.B.
This one ought to get you to brush before you go to bed. That smell is ... bacteria gas. Gross, but accurate. There are lots of bacteria in our mouth all the time, feeding on the tiny leftover bits of what we’ve eaten. Ever hear of plaque, the stuff all those toothpaste ads promise to get rid of? Plaque is nothing more than organized colonies of bacteria chowing down on food bits on your teeth.

When we’re awake, some plaque is removed when we chew, talk, drink, even when we breathe. But overnight, when those disturbances in the mouth stop, it’s party time for the bacterial colonies on your teeth, and they multiply like crazy. Their waste products are acids, which cause cavities, and gases, which cause that rude blast of morning breath.

Why do we snore? - S.D.
To bug the person sleeping next to us, of course.

Actually, there are several causes of snoring. All of them have something to do with restriction of the upper airway.

  • with swollen tonsils or adenoid glands snore.
  • People sleeping on their back snore because the tissues in the neck are pressing down on the windpipe.
  • Overweight people snore for pretty much the same reason, or because some of their fat is stored in tissues in the neck.
  • People with colds snore because they have swollen sinus tissues in their throat.
  • Drinking alcohol causes snoring by relaxing the muscles in the throat, which restricts the size of the airway.
  • We snore more as we age because of the loss of elasticity in neck tissues, which sag in on the windpipe.
  • People with misshapen jaws, larger-than-normal tongues, or on relaxant medications, all are more prone to snore.

So if you try to sleep next to an overweight elderly drunk with a misshapen jaw and a cold who’s taking muscle relaxants ... bring industrial-strength earplugs.

Why is yawning contagious? - P.H.
If you don’t think YAWNING is contagious, see if you YAWN by the time you’re done reading this explanation of YAWNING.

First, let’s dispel a myth. You don’t yawn to take in extra oxygen. “That’s been rejected in lab tests,” says YAWN expert Robert Provine, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland’s Baltimore County campus. He had test subjects breathe air with extra oxygen. For others, he reduced the oxygen intake by giving them air high in carbon dioxide. Neither caused more or less YAWNING.


Provine says “we YAWN when we’re changing states of activity. Going from sleep to wakefulness, like YAWNING in the morning. Or wakefulness to sleep.” (He says we YAWN more in the morning when we wake up, by the way.)

“Concert pianists will YAWN before going out to an important performance. Olympic athletes YAWN before the big event. Embryos begin YAWNING eleven weeks after conception,” Provine notes. He says YAWNING is somehow connected to changing levels of body activity, changes from one state to another, like inactive to active or vice versa, but nobody understands just what the connection is.

“It probably helps stir up the blood and brain chemistry to facilitate those transitions from one level of activity to another.”

Why? “YAWNING is ancient and autonomic,” Provine says. “Maybe it’s to get everyone in the tribe to synchronize their states of activity, to increase the success of the tribe if everyone’s working together. We really don’t know.”


YAWNING is highly contagious, he says. Every vertebrate species YAWNS. Fish YAWN. Birds YAWN. Alligators YAWN. But Provine says it’s apparently only contagious in humans.

Provine has made test subjects YAWN by showing them a YAWNING face. Interestingly, if he shows them just the YAWNING mouth, it doesn’t trigger the YAWNING. If he covers the mouth, and shows them just the nose and eyes of the YAWNING face, it does. He’s made subjects YAWN by talking about YAWNING, or asking the test subjects to think about YAWNING, or by having them read about YAWNING.

Yawning yet?

Some of the information in this article was adapted from a March 2000 article by David Ropeik.