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Ticking Off the Internal Timekeeper

April 13, 1999|SANDY BANKS

It's been 10 days since we sprung forward, setting our clocks ahead to deliver the spring-into-summer gift of another hour of evening light.

So why is it still so hard to rouse myself from sleep each morning? And why do I pass my days in such a fog?

Why am I still dragging from bed my three tired children, in slumber so deep they're oblivious to the alarm clock's buzz or the puppy's slobbery wake-up call?

And why do we all seem to stagger through every day so grouchy, dimwitted and glassy-eyed?


It is, experts say, like a mild--but protracted--case of jet lag . . . this annual spring time-shift rite that knocks our body clocks off-kilter.

And, as it turns out it is not uncommon for some folks to suffer for a week or more from sleepiness, irritability, indigestion, poor concentration or insomnia.

Put me down for all of the above. . . .

"I'd say most people adapt rather painlessly," says USC professor Michael Z. Wincor, an expert in the physiology of sleep.

But about a quarter of the population has difficulty adjusting to the change in body rhythms required when we're suddenly forced to rise an hour earlier.

"If you can't make the adjustment in those first couple days, it's likely to be a continual problem for a while, as the effects compound," Wincor says.

Because, just as my body knows it's really 5 a.m. when the alarm goes off at 6, my children's inner clock tells them it's only 8 o'clock when I try to herd them into bed when the clock says 9 p.m.

"It's extremely difficult to trick the body into falling asleep early," Wincor explains. "That's why it's so tough to get kids to bed an hour earlier; you can't trick their biological clocks into being ready for bed."

So children--and their parents--are apt to walk around exhausted for a while, and accumulate a mounting need for extra shut-eye.

"If you think of someone who needs nine hours of sleep a night and now they're only getting eight, that person is developing a sleep deficit," Wincor said.

It's not clear, he said, if that debt has to be repaid to the hour. But one research formula suggests that if you fall short one hour for four days running, your body needs a 12-hour stint of hibernation to stabilize.

Still, Wincor says we can minimize the time change disruption by resetting our own body clocks.

"You use the sunlight as your readjusting mechanism," because light acts on the part of the brain that controls the body's circadian rhythms, which regulate our internal clocks.

"We move the clock up on Saturday night. So you get up Sunday morning at your usual time." Don't sleep in; just write off that missed hour of shut-eye. "Then you get out into the sun from 10 o'clock to noon that day. And do that for the next couple of days. A few days of that and, for most people, the body's clock is readjusted."

So all I really needed last week was less rain and more light . . . and the luxury of a couple hours to spend basking in the sunshine each morning, putting my inner clock on daylight saving time.


Even under the best of circumstances, we are a society constantly sleep deprived.

Sleep research shows we are programmed by evolution to need an average of about nine hours of sleep each night . . . although some people can get by comfortably on four and others are zombies without 11.

But most Americans sleep for seven hours or less each night, because the demands of our busy lives are out of sync with our biological design.

Trying to function on too little sleep can have dire consequences, beyond headaches and circles under your eyes.

A report by the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research says sleepiness contributes to 40% of our nation's traffic accidents. Taking into account industrial and other mishaps, sleep-related errors cost this country more than $56 billion a year, cause nearly 25,000 deaths and result in more than 2.5 million disabling injuries.

And the problem can be most pronounced in the period we have just survived, drowsy and bleary-eyed: Traffic accidents tend to increase by about 7% in the week following the spring shift to daylight saving time.

Conversely, studies show that people who are well-rested display more "clarity of mind," perform better on academic tasks, and cope more effectively with stress than the sleep-deprived.

Some researchers even suggest that losing 10 hours of sleep each week could lower a person's IQ by as much as 15 points.

That means I'd better head back to bed . . . I'm missing more than beauty sleep.

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is

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