Why ‘falling back’ an hour will disrupt sleep, routines even more than usual this year

Leaves are falling and the air is crisper each day, a sign that we’ll soon turn back the clocks. Daylight saving time (DST), which gives us longer days of sunlight, ends at 2 a.m. local time on Sunday, Nov. 1.

When Boston 25 News asked Bostonians about the annual change, it was clear not everyone is happy about it. They say the last thing we need in the middle of a pandemic is to be plunged into darkness so early in the day and for some, it causes disruptions to sleep patterns.

The sun sets over Boston just before 6 p.m. right now while we’re on daylight saving time. By December, darkness will fall a little after 4 p.m., when daylight standard time is in place.

Tom Emswiler doesn’t want anyone tinkering with his clocks. He wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe back in 2014 making the case that Massachusetts switch its Eastern Time Zone with Atlantic Standard Time, which would match the time we currently use in the summer, and not “fall back” every November.

A state commission to examine if Massachusetts could stop changing the clocks back and forth was formed that year and though the commission recommended the change be made and a bill was filed in the legislature, it hasn’t happened. State Sen. John Keenan of Quincy plans to refile the bill in January.

“We only get nine hours of daylight a day in a New England winter. I don’t want 90 minutes of it to pass when we’re asleep,” said Emswiler.

Losing exposure to sunlight can have medical implications according to Alok Kanojia, a psychiatrist who teaches at the Harvard Medical School. “We do know, in Boston especially, seasonal effects on mental health are quite profound,” Kanojia said. “We also know that Vitamin D deficiency actually contributes to depression. Vitamin D is produced by sunlight mostly and so lower exposures to Vitamin D leads to an increased risk of depression.”

Sleep is another consideration when thinking about daylight saving time. “The biggest impact with daylight saving time is the negative effect it has on sleep,” said Kanojia. “In this country right now, we’re already having a sleep crisis. It’s a huge public health problem that people are not sleeping restfully, they’re not sleeping regularly.”

Elizabeth Klerman, a sleep specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said we’d be better off not changing the clocks at all, and that the research is clear that we should be on daylight standard time all the time. “It’s the shift that’s so bad," Klerman said. "There’s an important distinction between what the science says and what many people think.”

When the position of the sun and the time are most closely aligned your body knows what time of day it is. It’s sun time, not the social time or your local time, Klerman said.

Changing back to daylight saving time in the spring also presents some other health considerations.

“During the transition in the spring, from standard time to saving time, people lose an hour of sleep, and the following week is associated with increased car accidents and other health risks like heart attacks,” said Klerman.

Emswiler isn’t convinced that’s what would work best in Boston, particularly as the pandemic bears down this fall and winter. He believes additional sunlight in the afternoon would let people get outside more, and maybe cope a little better.“We’ve been rethinking how we do work and school and socializing and I think that has led a lot of people in Massachusetts to think, why are we going to fall back?”

Daylight saving time first started in many countries during World War I as a way to conserve energy.