As the nation prepares to adjust to the clock change on Sunday 28th October, many people will be dreading the adverse effect that this simple time shift will have on their ability to sleep. To help combat the clock change blues and to help those who’s sleeping is poor at the best of times, resident sleep expert, Christabel Majendie, has some top tips.

At this time of year I am often asked “Is my sleep affected when the clocks go back?” The change means an extra hour in bed on the Sunday for some people (although sadly not for many parents as most children will initially just wake when they are used to waking). However, moving the clocks back can have an impact on the quality of your sleep, leaving some people feeling tired during the day.

So why are we affected? Moving the clock back or forward means our biological clock is temporarily out of sync with the local day-night cycle and it takes time to adjust to this shift. Most people find the autumn change easier than the “spring forward” in time that occurs in March when we lose an hour. The impact of the clock change varies from person to person with some taking up to three days for the brain and body to adjust and others feeling unaffected.

What are the consequences?

Besides feeling tired and sleepy in the day for a few days after the clock change, you may experience some problems with concentration and memory.

Interestingly, research points to a decrease of 21% in the rate of heart attacks on the Monday following the autumn clock change. This is thought to be due to the benefit of increased sleep duration. The reverse pattern is seen in the spring with an increase of 25% in the rate of heart attacks on the Monday after the clocks move forward an hour. Lack of sleep can lead to a release of stress hormones that increase inflammation, and this may impact on individuals already at risk of having a heart attack. This indicates the potential importance of sleep to our physical health.

Another related issue is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is when an individual experiences symptoms of depression, including low mood and sleep disruption, in the autumn and winter months. This is thought to be due to reduced light exposure which can affect the body clock and the production of the hormones melatonin and serotonin, leading to issues with sleep and mood. Prescribed light exposure, given via a light box, can reduce these symptoms but this should be guided by a health professional, as the timing of the exposure is crucial.

Studies investigating the relationship between road traffic accidents and clock changes show conflicting results with some showing an increase on the Monday following the spring clock change and others showing a reduction. While sleep loss from one hour less in bed is sure to play a negative part through reduced alertness, the benefit of increased visibility from daylight-saving time may act to counteract this.

Other findings point to an increase in crime in the week following the autumn clock change with one study showing a 57% rise in reported burglaries compared to the weekly average for the rest of the year.

What you can do to help you adjust to the clock change

To minimise disruption to the clocks going back, you can alter your bedtime and wake time gradually by 15 minutes each night, three nights before the change. So if your normal bedtime is 11pm and your usual wake time is 6:30am then prepare to go to bed at 11:15pm on the Wednesday night and set your wake time to 6:45am. Adjust the times by 15 minutes each day until you get to the clock change on Saturday night.

It’s a good idea to do this with children too, setting their bedtime 15 minutes later each night starting several days before the clocks go back. You may find they don’t necessarily adjust their wake times immediately but following this pattern will help them adjust more gradually to the time change. With it being half term for most of the nation the week before our approaching clock change, this will make it easier for most parents to implement the gradual shift in bedtime.

Another way to help adjust to the clocks going back or forward is to get out into natural daylight as early as possible on the Sunday morning following the change. Your body clock is regulated by sunlight in the local environment so even if it is cloudy, getting outside as soon as possible after you wake will help your system adjust naturally. Light suppresses melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, so getting out into the daylight during your waking hours can really help you adjust to clock changes and jetlag.

Try to avoid exposure to bright lights at night. As part of your wind down an hour before bed, think about turning the lights down while you relax. Turn off phones and tablets which emit blue light which can interfere with the biological clock. If you wake in the night for a visit to the bathroom, try to avoid switching on main lights but use gentler side lights or night lights if possible.

Don’t forget all the basic sleep hygiene guidelines: avoid nicotine and caffeine 4-6 hours before bed; only moderate alcohol in the evening; exercise during the day (but not vigorous exercise in the evening); wind down an hour before bed with relaxing activities; create a calm and safe sleep environment with comfortable bedding and a good quality mattress to suit your taste.