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Body's Clock Never Adjusts to Daylight Savings Time

You can't fool Mother Nature, experts say

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 24 (HealthDay News) -- Changing to daylight savings time may give people an hour more of sunlight, but it appears that their internal body clocks never really adjusts to the change, German researchers report.

In fact, daylight savings time can cause a significant seasonal disruption that might have other effects on our bodies, according to the report in the Oct. 24 online edition of Current Biology.

"When you change clocks to daylight savings time, you don't change anything related to sun time," explained lead researcher Till Roenneberg of Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. "This is one of those human arrogances -- that we can do whatever we want as long as we are disciplined. We forget that there is a biological clock that is as old as living organisms, a clock that cannot be fooled. The pure social change of time cannot fool the clock."

People's circadian rhythm -- the body's internal clock -- follows the sun and changes depending on where you live. It actually changes in four-minute intervals, exactly the time it takes for the sun to cross one line of longitude, Roenneberg explained.

"The circadian clock does not change to the social change," Roenneberg said. "During the winter, there is a beautiful tracking of dawn in human sleep behavior, which is completely and immediately interrupted when daylight savings time is introduced in March," he said. It returns to normal this year when standard time returns on Nov. 4, he added.

Daylight savings time may be one cause of what Roenneberg called our lack of seasonality. By seasonality, he means that our internal clock is in tune with the natural change in light throughout the year. "This could have long-term effects," he said.

In the study, Roenneberg's group collected data on the sleep patterns of 55,000 people in Central Europe. The researchers found that sleep time on days off work when daylight savings time took effect followed the seasonal progression of dawn under standard time, but not under daylight savings time.

In a another study, Roenneberg's group looked at the timing of sleep and activity for eight weeks during the change to daylight savings time in 50 people, taking into account each person's natural clock preferences, or "chronotypes," which range from morning larks to night owls.

For both morning larks and night owls, their timing for sleep and peak activity easily adjusted when daylight savings time ended in the fall. However, it never adjusted to the return to daylight savings time in spring. This was especially true for night owls -- those who stay up late and sleep late.

"If we didn't change to daylight savings time, people would adjust to dawn during the summer and again to dawn in the autumn," Roenneberg. "But this natural adjustment is interrupted by daylight savings time," he said.

One expert believes daylight savings time is only one of the ways we try to fool our biological clock.

"It is not surprising that when you change our time to respond to something other than the sun and daylight that different chronotypes are going to have a difficult time," said Dr. Louis Ptacek, an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the John C. Coleman Distinguished Professorship in Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of California, San Francisco.

"Before artificial lighting, humans tended to live much more by the sun cycle," Ptacek said. "Whereas, now, people stay up all night and turn the lights on, which affects our biological clock. There is no question that we have been changing our clocks long before daylight savings time came along."

So, it's not surprising that daylight savings time affects our internal clock, Ptacek said. However, it is no more unnatural than our use of artificial light, he noted.

There is no reason to abandon daylight savings time, Ptacek added. "There may be societal benefits to daylight savings time, such as saving energy," he said. In any case, it is no more disruptive than the other things we do to manipulate time, he said.

Another expert believes daylight savings time isn't really useful, however.

"I don't think it is valuable to change to daylight savings time," said Ralph Downey III, the chief of sleep medicine at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. "Five o'clock to the body clock is five o'clock," he said. "But, socially, things change, and that's also a time-giver."

More information

For more on the body's clock, visit the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

SOURCES: Till Roenneberg, Ph.D., Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany; Louis Ptacek, M.D.,investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, John C. Coleman Distinguished Professorship in Neurodegenerative Diseases, professor, Department of Neurology, University of California, San Francisco; Ralph Downey III, Ph.D., chief, Sleep Medicine, Loma Linda University Medical Center, Loma Linda University Children's Hospital, Calif.; Oct. 24, 2007, online edition, Current Biology

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