During this new moment within the current pandemic, where more and more experts are imagining a "light" at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, a real beam has shone upon us. March 14 marked a shift to daylight saving time. It is that annual event where sunrise and sunset jump ahead one hour. As pointed out recently by Holly Burns of The New York Times, it represents one pandemic milestone we had not fully experienced together yet, with longer evenings and the extra sunlight.
Some but not all experts are excited about this change. Among those seeing more sunlight as a relief is Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. "Light can cause a shift in your emotional state because it's a stimulant," he explains to the Times. "It stimulates receptors in the eye, which send signals back to regions of the brain that regulate emotional responses, possibly by increasing serotonin transmission. We know serotonin to be a powerful chemical in regulating mood."
This is especially important to the estimated 6% of people in the United States who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that commonly occurs in the fall and winter months. "If you're thirsty in the desert and someone gives you water, your tongue is so sensitive to the sensation of drinking it that it feels amazing," Rosenthal notes. "For a person who's been deprived of light for months, there's a similar effect."
According to the weekly science and technology publication New Scientist, even without the pandemic lockdown, many of us were spending up to 90% of our lives indoors, bombarded with artificial light late into the evening. Being exposed to less light during the day and more artificial light at night means we are not able to maximize sunlight into converting cholesterol in the skin into vitamin D.
As widely publicized, vitamin D provides numerous health benefits to the body. According to the Mayo Clinic, its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and neuroprotective properties support immune health, muscle function and brain cell activity.
While New Science points out there is still much to learn about how light and darkness affect our biology, exposure to sunlight in the mornings helps to keep your circadian rhythms working properly. "Clearly, sunlight is very important for us, and even small increases in your exposure can improve sleep, mood and recovery from illness," they report.
"Now we can use it to safely do things we haven't been able to do for the last few months of the pandemic," says Rosenthal.
Other experts tell us that this sudden shift, especially now, aggravates other health issues. Among those concerned is Amy R. Wolfson, a professor of psychology at Loyola University Maryland and an expert in adolescent sleep. She explains to the Times that adjusting to the shift in your sleep schedule can make some who are already sleep deprived even more distractible.
"Sleep this past year has been affected by a variety of factors, including anxiety, inconsistent schedules and increased screen time," writes Michael Jaffee of the Chicago Sun Times. "This affects our health, as getting adequate sleep is important to assure our immune system can fend off and fight infections,"
"Even before the pandemic, about 40% of adults — 50 to 70 million Americans — got less than the recommended minimum seven hours per night," writes Jaffee. He goes on to say that children, who need more sleep than adults, face even more challenges. "To promote optimal health, 6- to 12-year-olds should sleep nine to 12 hours a day; teens from 13 to 18, eight to 10 hours."
"Problems from sleep shortage go beyond simply being tired," Jaffee says. "Compared to those who got enough sleep, adults who are short sleepers — those getting less than seven hours per day — were more likely to report 10 chronic health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma and depression."
Jaffee notes that, even before the pandemic hit, many researchers were concerned about how the twice-a-year switch affects our body's physiology when our internal circadian clocks are misaligned for half the year when transitioning to daylight saving time.
"Sleep affects every one of our biological systems," he writes. "Our endocrine system releases more cortisol, a stress hormone. We become more aroused by 'fight or flight' syndrome. ... The body has less glucose tolerance and greater insulin resistance; in the long term, that means an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes. ... Recent research suggests the body's waste removal process relies on sleep to get rid of harmful proteins from the brain ... the same proteins that are elevated in Alzheimer's patients."
It is why "the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the largest scientific organization that studies sleep, in October 2020 suggested nixing daylight saving time and moving to a year-round fixed time," he concludes.
While the idea of a national permanent year-round time has support, Rosenthal admits there remains disagreements in the medical world on whether the fixed time should be standard time or daylight saving time.
Just this past week, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio introduced the Sunshine Protection Act, a bipartisan bill to make daylight saving time permanent. Rubio's bill calls for not "falling back" in November and instead enjoying daylight saving time year-round. As reported by CNN, "It would not change the country's current time zones or the number of hours of sunlight." A similar bill was already passed in Rubio's home state of Florida in 2018. "Fifteen other states — including California, which voted to make daylight saving time permanent in 2018, and Washington, which did the same in 2019 — have passed similar legislation," says CNN. It requires Congress passing a law for it to take effect nationwide.
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