Everyone has a love-hate relationship with Daylight Savings (DST). We dread the immediate spring ahead because it cuts an hour off our “Sunday Funday,” but lets us eat, drink and be merry in sunshine for longer in the evening (unless you live around the Great Lakes). We embrace sleeping in for an extra hour in the fall, but immediately regret it because it’s now dark when we leave work. In the world of science, epidemiologists and chronobiologists like me rely on DST to carefully study and track human behavior and medical emergencies. We jokingly call DST “Happy Biannual Circadian Rhythms Awareness Day,” and for a very good reason. Over the years, epidemiologists and chronobiologists have discovered something extremely fascinating; falling back is linked to lower numbers of traffic accidents and risks for heart attacks across the week after DST while springing ahead is linked to the exact opposite—higher numbers of accidents and tragedies. How is this possible? And of course, could we see measurable increases or decreases in athletic performance across the week of DST?
Melatonin: The Hormone of Darkness
Melatonin is a hot topic in my popular neuroscience book, “Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain.” Melatonin is certainly not a performance-enhancing drug (except for Seabiscuit or any race horse-see Chapter 4 of book). Melatonin is released from the pineal gland near the base of the brain. It is intimately wired to the eyes because darkness or dim light triggers its release. When melatonin is released, we become sleepy. Melatonin is part of the reason most people can have an uninterrupted night of sleep. The most potent suppressor of melatonin release is light, artificial or natural. Yes, I interrupt you with a public service announcement to not text in the dark, turn off the TV, and not turn on the bathroom light in the middle of the night. All of these common habits (guilty as charged) greatly suppress melatonin release even if light exposure is limited to a minute or two.
So what does melatonin have to do with DST? Well, when it gets dark earlier, the physiological need to sleep becomes more overwhelming. This translates to earlier bed times, longer time in bed, and hopefully a better night’s sleep. Summer, on the other hand, is a challenge to our bodies. But this doesn’t explain the abrupt shift in human behavior and accidents around DST. To address this, we have to accept a grave observation; most of us suffer from chronic insufficient sleep and that everyone has a “tipping point.” For most of us who suffer from chronic insufficient sleep, DST seems to be that trigger, shifting our bodies in a positive direction with falling ahead and a negative direction by springing forward.
That being said, the consensus on whether DST affects athletic performance is still in question. No one has studied it!! However, I’m confident the same trends would appear, leading to strength gains in the fall and a week of flops in the spring. But just remember this, sleep is your body’s “most natural steroid,” to quote Jim Harbaugh. Nothing activates a sustained anabolic response like sleep day after day. So sleep on it.
ABOUT ALLISON BRAGER:
Professional: Academic Researcher with a focus on neurobiology @ Morehouse School of Medicine and professor at Morehouse College
PHD Info: Kent State with a focus on neurobiology (PHD from Department of Biological Sciences)
CrossFit Games Experience: 2015 Regionals - Team, 2014 Regionals Athlete, 2013 CrossFit Games - Team, 2012 Regionals Athlete
Collegiate Athletic Background: Brown University Track & Field, 4 year varsity letterman, specialist in pole vault and hurdles
Facebook: Meathead: Unraveling The Athletic Brain
Allison's Blog: www.dormivigilia.com
Instagram and Twitter: @beastlyvaulter
Like this article? Check out Allison's book Meathead: Unraveling The Athletic Brain