SAVE your mental health by going to bed at the right time
This month marks the end of another Daylight Savings Time. And while the clocks in your house may be easy enough to change, allow me to issue a word of warning: Your body clock may not “fall” in line so easily.
Sure, we may only be “falling back” one hour—but that little shift can disrupt your circadian rhythms, big time.
What does that mean for you?
Well, science shows us that honoring your body’s internal “clock” is a matter of life and death. And while this season’s time change may not kill you, everyone will feel the difference—in one way or another.
Many people will struggle with mood disorders—including seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and depression.
Luckily there’s a simple “one-hour” trick that can help adjust your body clock in no time.
Even better? It also helps ward off the many ill-effects of poor sleep—and can even benefit your overall mood throughout the dark days of winter.
Early birds fare best
A large new study found that people who keep unnatural sleep patterns are more likely to struggle with depression. But there’s some good news, too…
This latest research drew from data on more than 450,000 adults in the U.K. Biobank—including questionnaires and gene mapping related to sleep patterns. More specifically, researchers were classifying participants as being night owls or early risers.
Researchers created a measure of what they call “social jetlag,” which accounts for variations in sleep patterns between workdays and days off. (To do so, they used sleep data from 85,000 subjects, gathered through wrist-worn activity monitors.)
Ultimately, they found that when people’s schedules weren’t aligned with their circadian rhythms, they were more likely to report depression and anxiety. They were also more likely to have lower levels of wellbeing, in general.1
Not surprisingly, the researchers found that early risers were more likely to be aligned with their body’s natural clock. (And hence, to have lower levels of depression and higher levels of wellbeing.)
But being a natural early riser didn’t appear to be protective for people who worked shifts—as this type of work typically goes against one’s natural body clock, regardless of being an early riser, or not.
What a difference an hour makes
Of course, nothing about these results so far should come as a surprise. In fact, previous observational research suggests that night owls may face double the risk of depression compared to their early rising counterparts.
What hasn’t been totally clear, however, is whether mood disorders simply wreak havoc on sleep patterns—or whether the opposite is also true. So, recent research tried to answer this question…
A 2018 study analyzed nearly 32,500 middle-aged female nurses. All subjects were depression-free in 2009. Thirty-seven percent were self-described early birds, 10 percent were night owls, and 53 percent fell somewhere in between.
Researchers followed the subjects for four years to see which women developed depression. They also accounted for key depression risk factors like weight, exercise levels, chronic disease, and, you guessed it, shift work.
But even after accounting for these extra factors, they found that the early risers were as much 27 percent less likely to be depressed than the women with later “chronotypes.”2
A more recent study from the same researchers used data from more than 850,000 people—drawn from the DNA testing company 23 and Me, as well as the U.K. Biobank—to look at the effect of genetic “chronotype” on depression risk. (It just so happens that more than 300 genetic variants influence your tendency to be an early riser or a night owl.)
Analysis clearly showed that people genetically predisposed to early rising have a lower risk of depression. But results also showed that subjects had a 23 percent lower risk of major depression for every hour earlier their sleep midpoint was (the halfway point between bedtime and waking).3
What does this mean? Simply put: Night owls could cut their depression risk by nearly 25 percent by pushing bedtime up an hour. Go to bed two hours earlier, and you might just cut that risk nearly in half!
Hope for night owls
There are a lot of potential explanations for these findings—like the fact that early birds tend to get more sunshine, which has mood-boosting effects all by itself.
But they also make sense when you consider how society is set up, in general: We wake up and go to work early in the morning (and for those of us who commute, that means getting up really early), get home in the early evening, sleep, and do it all over again.
This kind of nine-to-five working pattern works out great for early birds. But as this research shows, it’s bad news for natural night owls… at least where mental health is concerned.
Of course, one silver lining of the pandemic is that many employers aren’t requiring a return to conventional office hours—or a return to an office, in general. These more flexible working patterns could mean better mental health for people whose natural body clocks deviate from the norm.
But even if that’s not the case for you, I’m happy to report that there’s still a LOT you can do to nudge your body’s natural clock in a healthier direction.
I’ve shared strategies to realign your circadian rhythms here before. But whether your goal is to become an early riser permanently, or to maintain the sleep-wake cycle you currently have through yet another seasonal time change, now is the perfect time to revisit them…
Four simple steps to adjust your clock
1.) Keep it dark at night. One of the biggest sleep disruptors is blue light—from your television, computer, tablet, or phone. This light sends a signal to your pineal gland, instructing it to stop generating the sleep hormone melatonin. As a result, this keeps your brain awake and active, setting the stage for a night of tossing and turning.
That’s why eliminating exposure to electronics is particularly important before bedtime. (At the very least, you can switch on the nighttime feature on your devices—so that the screen automatically becomes dimmer and switches to a warmer hue. But ultimately, I recommend refraining from use at least one hour prior to bedtime.)
Another thing you might want to consider is avoiding shopping in the evening hours. That’s because a lot of stores have switched to using blue LED lights to keep things brighter. Outdoor lighting can also mess up your natural sleep-wake cycles—especially if you live in a city, like I do. So, I recommend taking steps to minimize these external exposures. I personally use blackout shades and a sleep mask.
2.) Get plenty of sunshine in the morning. One thing you should get is more sun exposure in the morning (and throughout the day). Opening the shades and getting outside after sunrise will ensure that your body is getting its “wake up” signals when it needs them. And believe it or not, this early morning sunshine exposure ultimately helps when it’s time to wind down in the evening, too.
3.) Engage in exercise—any time of the day. Laboratory research shows that exercise helps stabilize circadian rhythms in older mice. And that younger mice who stop exercising suffer the same circadian disruptions as their older counterparts.4 So, as I always recommend, get some daily exercise. It doesn’t matter whether you’re inside or outside, either. (And with cold weather returning, that probably comes as a relief.)
4.) Embrace an early bedtime—and take melatonin, if you need it. If you’re already an early riser, don’t hesitate to bump your bedtime up while you adjust to the time change. But recovering night owls, on the other hand, should embrace the opportunity to start keeping earlier hours. If you’re having trouble making that extra hour stick, don’t be afraid to supplement with melatonin to help you fall asleep. I recommend starting with 3 mg an hour before bedtime, as needed.
These sensible lifestyle interventions can go a long way in helping you not only combat the mood disruptions that may accompany a seasonal time change—but a whole host of health concerns, too. Because as I’m always telling you, proper rest is crucial to good health. Aim for seven to nine hours of quality shuteye, each night. And remember to allow yourself some grace as we all plunge into the dark, long days of winter.
- O’Loughlin J, et al.“Using MendelianRandomisation methods to understand whether diurnal preference is causally related to mental health.” Molecular Psychiatry, 2021; DOI: 10.1038/s41380-021-01157-3
- Vetter C, et al. “Prospective study of chronotype and incident depression among middle- and older-aged women in the nurses’ Health Study II.”Journal of Psychiatric Research, 2018; DOI:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2018.05.022
- DaghlasI, et al. “Genetically Proxied Diurnal Preference, Sleep Timing, and Risk of Major Depressive Disorder.” JAMA Psychiatry, 2021; DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.0959
- Gu C, et al. “Lack of exercise leads to significant and reversible loss of scale invariance in both aged and young mice.”Proc NatlAcad Sci U S A. 2015 Feb 24;112(8):2320-4.