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Health Hack #55 - The Times They Are a Changin

This past week has brought about plenty of change. There’s the obvious one, which seems to have come to somewhat of a conclusion today. We shall see. But there’s an equally obvious one that came and went, without virtually any discussion.

If you’re anything like me, a reprieve from all of the election melee is highly overdue. This past week has felt incredibly strange, echoing some similarities to the very beginning of lockdown. Did yesterday feel so drawn out it felt like an entire week, or did last week fly by so fast it felt like a day? Or are both impressions somehow felt simultaneously?

For me, it’s the latter. Each day felt so long, glued to the TV and the phone, trying to sift through all of the facts. But here we are on Saturday and it feels like I was just at my local library to drop off my ballot on Monday. Time is strange. And it’s in the name of time, literally speaking, that I’ll deliver this reprieve, in hopes of provoking a bit of thought towards something other than the election.

Daylight Saving

Last Sunday I woke up earlier than usual. Furthermore, had I woken up at this time one day earlier, it would have been dark outside. But today, for some reason, it was bright out.

We encounter this phenomenon twice per year. I find both occurrences somewhat bittersweet. Now, heading into winter, I relish at having the sun available first thing in the morning hours, greeting me as I awaken, and beckoning me from sleep. In the spring, I enjoy the longer days. As we break from winter, I’m eager to spend more and more time outside, and the later the sun sets, the more opportunity I have to capitalize.

On the flipsides, it feels a bit off-putting for darkness to now be setting in at 5pm. It’s so sudden, and so drastic. And in the spring, it’s hard to think of a more miserable condition to throw on our early risers (particularly those to awaken intentionally for an early start to work) than shifting from brightness to blackness at the sound of one’s alarm.

I think there are two overarching questions at play here. Starting with the obvious, what is the point? And once answering that question, the next to consider is what cost the change has caused us. Everything that we decide to do comes with an opportunity cost, equivalent to what we could be doing had we chosen otherwise. What is the cost of Daylight Saving Time (“DST”), in the most measurable sense of how it impacts our well being?


There’s a lot of mythologizing when it comes to the start of DST. Often attributed as one of a thousand innovations born of the mind of Benjamin Franklin, it happens that our Philly hero did not in fact create the concept. (For all history geeks, learn more here: 8 interesting facts regarding DST)

Instead, it fell into practice in the early 20th century. Individual villages within Canada first dabbled with the concept in 1908, but it hit national scale in 1916, when both Germany and Austria instituted measures nearly identical to those that remain in our country today. Why? As a rationing tactic during WW1, aimed at saving fuel for the war effort. By extending daylight hours by one hour in the early spring, both countries eliminated the need for artificial lighting by an extra hour. Many countries soon followed suit, including ours.

Dispelling another myth, the farming industry was not an advocate for the measure. As it turns out, the agriculture industry was walloped by the spring measure. Farmers use a very simple tool for setting the wheels in motion for their workday. It’s called the sun. The nifty clock is secondary. Many farmers were forced to refrain from their work for an extra hour now, waiting for the morning dew to evaporate. And as we all know well, our dinner times are pretty fixed, year round. Staff would depart at the same time at the end of the day to join their families at home, effectively costing everyone an hour; in their case an hour of pay, in the farm’s case an hour of productivity. The logistics components were flipped upside down, as long standing, hard coded shipment times for things like dairy products needed to be changed now that cows were no longer awakening at the same hour. Pure chaos for this ever important and forever fragile industry. Much to Woodrow Wilson’s dismay, an effort spearheaded primarily by the farming community managed to repeal the federal mandate, and DST disappeared in the U.S. as of 1919.

Federal DST returned at the outset of WW2, but vanquished soon after the war ended. However at this point, some states and even individual cities (NYC and Chicago, for example) reignited the policy. It was not until 1966 that the Uniform Time Act sought to bring uniformity to the United States again, albeit leaving in the ability for states to refuse to comply if they deemed necessary.

To close the case on the first big question we should ask ourselves, DLS was implemented under the premise that it would reduce our energy costs, particularly during war. But at what cost to us? And at what value nowadays?

Circadian Biology

The lesson about the dairy cows and the ensuing farming debacle during the initial implementation of DST is a valuable one. As someone with a backyard flock of chickens, I have a close, personal perspective here. Our current flock is young and agile, and our four foot tall security fence surrounding their free ranging area proved no deterrent for exploring much of our neighborhood. Upon realizing they could muster the flight capabilities to soar over the fence, they quickly became a spectacle for a number of our neighbors, sifting through mulch beds for insects, and wandering further and further from our backyard. I had a very similar conversation with each neighbor, upon their initial observation. “I want to be sure they don’t get lost!” “Don’t worry, they know their way home.” “It’s going to get dark in a few hours!” “They’ll return home just as it’s getting dark. That’s when they call in a night.”

Like farmers, animals rely on a far more ancient measurement for time than a clock. Chickens will rise as soon as the sun begins showing face, and they’ll rest as soon as it begins to set. It does not matter what the clock reads. They possess clocks far more novel than the ones hanging on our walls and displaying on our phones. We do as well, but we don’t pay as much mind to them as we did during the bulk of our evolutionary trajectory. We’re talking about our circadian clock.

Modern day indigenous cultures devoid of technology as we know it tend to rise and fall with the ebb and flow of the sun, as do most creatures in the animal kingdom (save for many hunting species that are on the prowl overnight). These circadian clocks are adjustable, but they require input from nature, not some arbitrary, digital tweak. We evolved by greeting our bodies (namely our eyes) with the sun’s affection very early in the morning, and by shifting closer and closer towards tiredness as the sun disappears. It’s important to note that this pertains even to cloudy days, and to perpetually cloudy regions of the earth. The sun is able to reach us even when we can’t quite detect it beyond a haze of clouds.

As we find a sleep groove - cemented as a recurring bedtime and an awake time - we find our sleep quality improved by all measurable metrics (all other things equal, of course). When our sleep is proper, our accompanying hormones are better balanced, as we experience a rise in cortisol in the morning and melatonin at night. With these in check, we’re in a better state of being. For a deep dive into supporting evidence for why, reference the work of Matthew Walker.

Finding that groove is more about submitting to our circadian rhythms than anything else. Sunlight in our eyes and on our flesh in the AM remains our cue that it’s morning. For those who remain working from home, it’s so important to get outdoor exposure in the early AM. Even when it’s raining, even in the winter. Likewise, our cue to wind down remains the sunset. This is deeply embedded. While we must relish in the opportunity to bathe in UV in the early morning, we must caution ourselves against too much blue light stimulation (primarily phones, televisions, and virtually all other screens) as we really start to wind down. These habits are applicable for all times, but their importance is heightened when we turn the clocks backwards (as we’ve just done) or forwards (as we’ll do in the spring).

If the modern day clock isn’t synchronized with the ancient clock, then we’re simply out of balance. Were DST truly necessary, we’d be better suited for a tapering effect, maybe with a two minute change occurring daily for a month. But this drastic one hour change at the flick of a switch is really tough to adjust to.

There are a few staggering metrics that exhibit the inherent dangers here. Averaged across many years, the rates of heart attacks have shown to increase by 24% on the day after clocks spring ahead in the spring (link). The night of the clock changeover marks an average loss of 40 minutes of sleep for the average American. It would take a lot of effort and deception not to connect those two dots.

Additionally, fatal car crashes increase by 6% in the week following spring’s time change (learn more here). Drowsy driving deaths are often overshadowed by focus on drunk driving, but it turns out that drowsy driving is a tremendous culprit for fatal car accidents. Again, with the change comes the interruption to the sleep, and so begins the downward spiral.

It’s hard to argue for DST to remain a bedrock on our annual calendars. It doesn’t appear to provide any benefit towards the spirit in which it was created. It also comes at a pretty significant cost. But while it remains, we have a few options. We can defect to Hawaii or Arizona, two states devoid of DST. The following U.S. commonwealths also shun the tradition: Puerto Rico, Northern Marina Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam. We can raise hell and aim to effect change nationwide, or even at the state level. Or, as the only realistic scenario for the time being, we can aim to whip our circadian rhythm into a slightly different shape each time twice per year, via the keeping the rising and setting of the sun as close as ally as the digital time that we read from our cell phones.

Sleep Well, Live Well.