It’s that time of the year again, where many of us shift the clocks around in accordance with Day Light Savings Time. But where did this tradition come from, how does it impact our health, and is there a better way to do it?

Why do we mess with our clocks each year?

Ever wondered why every year we adjust the time at the beginning and end of the warmer months? For many of us, it’s an automated action regulated by our phones, watches and computers, one that we barely notice, save for a friendly reminder from a coworker or family member a few days prior to the annual event. The origins of Daylight Savings Time (DST) begin around the 1800’s, first proposed by George Hudson of New Zealand, who suggested introducing a times-shift that would see clocks advance by one or two hours every spring, thereby encouraging people to wake earlier.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see what the thinking was here. If people were exposed to longer daylight hours, they would consume less resources attempting to synthesise artificial light, such as burning candles. Other scientists of the era suggested similar mechanisms, laying the groundwork for governments to consider the benefits of an alternating time zone.

The early 1900’s saw other countries such as Canada and parts of Europe adopt this time shifting practice. Years later, US President Woodrow Wilson followed suit by signing into law five different time zones (which have been in use since 1918). In the states, DST was initially known as “war time“, with the idea being that an extra hour of daylight would help save on crucial energy resources during the first World War.

In the years that followed, many countries have trialled versions of DST, though today only a minority of the world’s population observes it. Around sixty countries still practice DST, including most of the US, Canada, United Kingdom, parts of Australia, Europe and Africa.

Mental health impacts

Longer daylight hours during summer, what could be wrong with that? Well, it turns out quite a bit, actually. In case you hadn’t noticed, the world has drastically changed in last two hundred plus years since DST was first floated. Firstly, thanks to the introduction of the modern industrial complex, technological breakthroughs and advancements in agricultural machinery, our economy is no longer revolves around farming. Crucially, workers and labourers no longer need to prioritise waking at the crack of dawn to maximise their productivity, making ‘hay while the sun shines’.

Studies have found that DST time adjustments can lead to an increase in heart attacks, emotional disorders and depressive episodes.

Along with an evolution away from being an agrarian-based economy, we now know more about our relationship with sleep and circadian rhythms. Research has demonstrated that shifting time back and forth on an annual basis may lead to disruptions in sleep patterns, and those that are meant to benefit from an extra hour of sleep usually just end up waking earlier. Similar studies have found that DST time adjustments can lead to an increase in heart attacks, emotional disorders and depressive episodes.

And it’s the psychological impact of DST that bares closer examination. One mental health condition with strong links to DST is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It is typified as depressive symptoms which are expressed during the same time of the year, most prevalent during the winter and colder months where there are less hours of sunlight. DST creates both the environmental factor for SAD to occur, as well as the remedy that many look forward to when the clocks flip forward during the warmer months.

Here in Melbourne, Australia (and for others in the southern hemisphere) our summer has just come to a close, the days are getting shorter and cooler. In just a few weeks’ time we will switch over to DST, gaining some more light in the morning, at the expense of much darker evenings. Instead of the sunset occurring just after 8PM, it will suddenly begin the process far sooner, and it won’t be long before that becomes 6PM, and then 5PM. Many people dread this time of year, as just several days ago we experienced a 35°C day that was perfect beach weather, yet in ten days it will seem like winter is already upon us.

The world has changed since the 1800s. Source: Pexels/Bruno Drv.

How about a compromise

So why do we do this to ourselves? Each year bracing for the dizzying highs of summer before the sudden cold plunge into winter, just as we are coming to terms with the end of the sunny season. Why invent a solution to a problem that we created? DST clearly has an impact on our health and wellbeing, yet life has changed in a big way since its introduction. Candles have given way to solar power, “war time” is not the norm and flexible working in en vogue. Ask students who took classes at home over the last few years, or the millions of workers who discovered remote working, just how much better their sleep is without having to travel or head into an office every day. The world no longer forces you to sacrifice sleep for productivity, so why are we still living with the remnants of a system that was tailor made for that very purpose?

The US is currently mulling over whether to make DST permanent, though most Americans don’t like that notion, and scientist agree it would be in the interest of public health to stop changing the time altogether.

Going back to permanent standard time might also be a tricky take, but it would be at least better than twice a year time changes and may be a wiser health choice too. Standard time was what we started with and is more in tune with human’s intrinsic circadian rhythm, according to sleep experts. Plus, besides a few months of adjustment while each region winds back the clock, it would be easy enough to implement.

Either that, or we just split the difference and collectively skip the clock forward thirty minutes next spring? If you think time zones are crazy now, just imagine the fun that would entail.

Either way, it’s about time we gave up DST for good.

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