Ben Franklin believed “early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” He was right, after all. Adopting an early bedtime does reduce your likelihood of being sleep deprived and protects us from physiological and psychological issues that can arise from insufficient sleep. But what Ben Franklin did get wrong was adopting and advocating for Daylight Savings Time (DST). The initial intent was to save on candle wax. The Germans adopted DST during World War I in an attempt to re-allocate energy costs during wartime. Soon after, the United States adopted DST with a similar intent as the Germans. However, a cost-benefit analysis of DST reveals otherwise; DST only has marginal impact on energy savings, and is significantly taxing on health and well being as revealed from several research studies.
What are the costs of DST on health and well being? One of the first studies on the negative consequences of DST was published in the historically top medical journal in the world, the New England Journal of Medicine. A group of Canadian researchers discovered an increase in car accidents the Monday after “springing ahead” in Canada — which usually leads to an hour less of nighttime sleep. A few years later, a group of American researchers did a similar investigation and had identical findings; more car accidents from “springing ahead” relative to “falling back.” Since these seminal studies, cardiologists have reported similar trends in heart attacks with “springing ahead” (more heart attacks relative to numbers during “falling back”). Both trends, car accidents and heart attacks, related to DST are alarming for our first responders. First, let’s think about the number of hours spent on the road in a high-risk situation racing to a call. Second, a recent report on the state of the health of > 6,000 firefighters found higher risks for a cardiovascular event in firefighters relative to the general population.
What kind of risk reduction can be done to reduce health costs of DST? The first (but most difficult) solution is to switch to Permanent Standard Time (ST). A switch to Permanent ST is currently being lobbied on Capitol Hill in an attempt to better educate Congress about the negative consequences of DST on health and well being. Scientists and physicians in biological timing and sleep medicine, including myself, are leading the initiative. While we recognize it may take years to change American policy and culture, the process begins with awareness and education. In fact, the United States went to Permanent ST under the Uniform Time Act signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. It didn’t last though. While we continue to lobby for Permanent ST, what can you do?
The first and most effective solution is to get to bed as early as possible in order to maximize your nighttime sleep. During the summer, adopting earlier bedtimes will ensure your sleep isn’t cut short by sunlight at 0500. During the winter, earlier bedtimes will ensure you get a full eight hours as a means to counteract grogginess/sleepiness due to darkness. As always, begin your nighttime sleep routine at least an hour before bedtime, powering off all electronics (phones, tablets, and yes, the TV in the bedroom!). Continue by dimming all the lights, taking a hot shower, and relax with a book (but not on your tablet [unless you have a blue-light blocking filter]!).
The second solution to combating the negative consequences of DST, especially during the short winter days (Boston Fire Department definitely knows what I’m talking about), is to invest in a blue-enriched light box (< $50 investment). Several recent studies have shown the benefits of blue-enriched light over poor fluorescent lighting (like the all too familiar lighting of TOCs) for stabilizing stress hormones (cortisol), sleep-promoting hormones (melatonin), and mental acuity during the day and evening. Blue-enriched light has also been shown to be especially helpful for combating seasonal changes and dips in alertness. At the fire station, blue light boxes during the short winter days can honestly be viewed as essential PPE. To conclude, earlier bedtimes for a full night’s sleep is always the best course of action for staying safe, alert, and focused on saving lives even when mother nature decides otherwise.
Dr. Allison Brager, PhD
Dr. Brager is a subject matter expert in behavioral genetics, sleep, and biological rhythms research. Allison is passionate about discovering new factors that promote resilience in extreme environments. She has directed sleep and performance research programs for the United States Army and assists with writing military training doctrine. She also serves on the NCAA task force for mental health and sleep, contributing to the first edition of the NCAA student-athlete mental health handbook. She is author of Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain, which debunks the myth of the ‘dumb jock’ and serves as a performance manual for functional athletes.
Outside of the laboratory, Allison was a two-time CrossFit Games (team) athlete, a two-time CrossFit Regionals (individual) athlete, and a four-year varsity NCAA Division I athlete in track and field. She is currently a member of the Army’s CrossFit team. She still pole vaults (as a Master’s athlete!), enjoys carrying heavy, awkward objects, and nightly skateboard rides.