What falling back means for your sleep


October 31, 2017

Do not disturb (your circadian rhythms). As we fall back, enjoy that extra hour of sleep — for now — but use the time to recalibrate your clock in a healthy way.


OK, here we go again.

We’re adjusting our clocks by an hour. And we also have to change our smoke detectors, and our carbon monoxide detectors, and our microwaves, and figure out how to change the time on our car clocks before we give up and just put them on a temperature display instead. Spring forward, fall back, so — technically, we gain an hour of sleep this weekend, when we switch from daylight saving time back to standard time.

Getting another hour of sleep should be good news, right? Mostly, yes.

“This is the time of year where it’s actually easier because we’re moving the clocks back,” says Beth Malow, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt Sleep Center. “We’re getting an extra hour of sleep and it’s lighter in the morning. This is the good part of it. Take advantage of that.”

Most of us will rejoice at that extra hour of sleep and the extra hour of sunshine in the morning, and it is the perfect time to set up or reestablish some healthier sleeping habits, Malow says.

“If you go to bed at 11 o’clock now, you can go to bed at 10 and it will feel like 11. This is a time to for people to recalibrate their clocks in a healthy way,” she says.

Why we fall back

Our bodies have a 24-hour circadian rhythm that naturally follows the sun. That internal body clock doesn’t really care what any of your external clocks say (although your boss certainly will). It won’t be a tough transition for most of us with that delicious extra hour of sleep we get each November. It’s the advent of daylight saving time in the spring, when we lose that hour, that we really have to watch out for.

If you’re wondering how daylight saving time came about in the first place, allow us to save you the Google search. We set clocks ahead one hour in the spring so that there’s extra sunlight at the end of the day during the summer months. This made a lot more sense in the early 1900s, when we were an agrarian society. Modern proponents say it helps promote more retail shopping and outdoor activities, among other things.

While few grumble about the autumnal switch back to standard time, some people frankly never quite adjust to that lost hour of spring. Not every country uses daylight saving time, and there are plenty of advocates here who think it’s high time we got rid of it altogether — including Malow.

“I think it would be great to eliminate it,” she says. “When we were farmers, we needed it. Now it just disrupts the whole situation. Particularly in the spring, it’s very disruptive because you lose an hour of sleep.”

In the meantime, if you’re someone who suffers from poor sleep patterns, try to avoid spending your extra hour Sunday bingeing on a “Doctor Who” marathon. You’re going to regret not using the opportunity to snooze when daylight saving time kicks in again next March.

If you have lingering sleep issues, talk with your healthcare provider about finding a sleep disorder program. Vanderbilt’s Sleep Disorders Center can help.

Beth Ann Malow, M.D., is Burry Chair in Cognitive Childhood Development, and professor of neurology and pediatrics in the Sleep Disorders Division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Her research focuses on the interrelationship of sleep and neurologic disease.