Yesterday I woke with a thrill: the clocks had gone back, meaning an extra hour of sleep and the annual indicator that we’re a step closer to Christmas holidays. This morning it was a different tale: it was dark, wintery and I wanted to hibernate. How can one hour have such a powerful effect?
“Our body clock works on a cycle of slightly over 24 hours, which allows us to be at our optimal functioning during daylight hours,” says Mark Coulson, reader in psychology at Middlesex University. “Our bodies don’t like change and that one hour has a profound effect on the part of the day when we are busy. We transition from carrying things out in daylight, to carrying them out in the dark. One hour doesn’t make a huge difference on a weekend but on a school night, it is very noticeable.”
According to Professor Cary Cooper, former president of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, the clocks going back carry negative symbolism. “They signal winter, that you’ll be going to work in the dark, coming home in the dark and be inside working all the time,” he says.
Light, or the lack of it, is a major contributor to the winter blues: “You’re not getting full-spectrum light,” say Cooper. “Instead, you go into an office and sit under fluorescent light, often for the whole day. Go out for lunch, go to the gym and go out for dinner. Don’t hunker down and flop in front of the TV.”
Sammy Margo, sleep expert and author of The Good Sleep Guide (Vermilion, £10.99), suggests 15 minutes of sun exposure, without sunglasses, every day; this will also help prevent vitamin D deficiency. “Light boxes are also useful because the exposure can help release your body’s natural opiates, making you feel better and more productive.” Margo recognises physical effects from the clocks going back, much like with jet lag. To combat those symptoms, she recommends adjusting sleeping and eating routines: “Tonight, go to bed 15 minutes later and tomorrow 30 minutes later. Apply the same principle to your breakfast and dinner times.”
Margo also recommends cutting down on ‘snooze foods’ during the day. “Snooze foods are those containing melatonin, serotonin and magnesium (found in bananas) and the sedative tryptophan (found in milk, potatoes, almonds and turkey),” she says. “For a healthy night’s sleep, you should ensure you are getting enough B vitamins, iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc, either through your diet or supplements.”
It can take up to a week to adjust to winter hours and, says Mark Coulson, feeling depressed about winter is a natural response. “But remember: you can’t do anything about it and the sense of impending doom is way out of proportion to what’s happening,” he says. “Look at it as a habitual change that you will adapt to.”
I guess survival of the fittest works in this case: the ability to adapt and embrace the changes we have no control of. To continue and thrive in the new environment, however, is something I'm currently working on because frankly, waking up in the dark is no fun.