John Cronin, MD, a sleep medicine specialist at Scripps Clinic, discusses the effects daylight saving and long-distance travel have on our sleeping patterns and brain function. Dr. Cronin explains the benefits of maintaining a regular sleeping schedule and the challenges this poses for frequent travelers.
Daylight saving time is a subtle adjustment to our schedule, but it has a powerful impact on our neurocognitive performance overall. This is shown in simple highway statistics about the likelihood of car accidents. Even a one-hour change can have a really profound impact.
What I counsel people is to recognize that you probably aren’t going to be at your best the first couple of days after a time change. It’s just a one-hour time change so you want to at least try to do your best not to have any critical duties that next day, or maybe you give yourself a little bit of a break and realize that you’re going to be a little bit sleepy.
Certainly, the main thing we don’t want to do is have people driving while they’re sleepy. This may pose a personal danger and maybe a public health danger.
Sometimes, people will use caffeine to help them stay awake a little bit more easily in the morning or in the afternoon. But it’s really mostly about getting back to a regular sleep schedule. The single most important thing that people don’t recognize about the sleep schedule is that the main anchor is when you go to bed. The time you wake up in the morning really is critical to determine what time you fall asleep. We try to keep that as regular as possible for our patients. I know it’s not always possible, but that would be a key goal for people.
When you travel to Europe or to China, it’s such a big gap that your brain can really not catch up that fast. We know through scientific studies that the brain usually can advance or delay by about an hour and a half a day. So, if you fly to Europe and it’s nine hours away, it’s really going to take you probably a good four days to get back to kind of a normal function. It’s not easy.
We all are exposed to jet lag and it’s really hard to short-circuit it.
In San Diego, I see a lot of patients from some of the technology companies. These are incredibly busy individuals, who fly back and forth to Asia every two to three weeks. We really work hard and struggle sometimes to get that sleep schedule on track because it’s very challenging. The minute your brain gets caught up, then you’re coming back home. The modern world, the 24-hour seven-day-a-week cycle is really challenging with the business world.
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