It’s the time of year when sunlight, or lack thereof, in the evenings, emerges as a health concern — made even worse by the dreaded change from daylight savings time (DST) to Standard time (ST).
The change contributes to an uptick of a host of mental and physical health concerns every year, from diet and mood changes to stroke and automobile accidents. Falling back is also purported to have a substantial effect on mental health as a trigger of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Combined with the supposed benefits of DST for the economy and for energy savings, these health effects led the Senate to pass the Sunshine Protection Act in March of this year — an act which would prevent clocks from changing back to Standard time as of November 2023 in the United States, should the bill pass the house and make its way to President Biden’s desk.
Unfortunately, making daylight savings time permanent may not be as good for health as it sounds.
In the spring, when DST begins again, many of the same health impacts are reported, and in addition to them, research shows that the shift to DST is associated with increased risk of myocardial infarction and stroke. Meanwhile, while the negative mental health effects of switching to ST from DST dissipate over 10 weeks, the effects of DST on neurological and psychiatric conditions last for the entirety of DST.
This is because DST puts our body’s natural clocks out of sync with the sun for the entirety of the season. According to sleep doctors Karin Johnson and Beth Malow, circadian misalignment disrupts our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. In turn, sleep deprivation and disturbance increases the risk of neurological and psychiatric conditions, from stroke to depression. Dr. Johnson and Malow’s research also supports negative impacts of evening sunlight on neuropsychological functioning in day-to-day activity, including work and education.
US legislators needn’t be creative to imagine the impact that year-long daylight savings time would have on the health of our population. The experiment has already been done elsewhere — for example, from 1968 to 1971 in the United Kingdom. That experiment ultimately failed, apparently because the impact of darkness in the cold winter mornings outweighed the benefit of more light in the morning — especially disadvantaging residents of the Northern UK. While data is limited on the broad health impacts of the experiment, the results of the Double British Summer Time experiment bring out questions regarding the structural inequities that year-long DST could exacerbate. For example, increased need for heating in the darker mornings during winter months could put increased strain on the finances of lower-income families, worsening the energy insecurity crisis in the US.
While Daylight Savings Time may have some mental health benefits in the short term, the long term costs far outweigh them. Even environmental and economic benefits of DST are questionable, with the potential for lowering demand for lighting in the evening trading off with demand for heating and cooling. While the rationale behind the Sunshine Protection Act is appealing, it is majorly flawed. If legislators wish to do away with seasonal time changes, they should instead consider the permanent implementation of standard time.
To be sure, it can be a welcome relief to have more light in our evenings. The public should take full advantage of the mental and physical benefits of natural increase in daylight brought by solar patterns in the springtime. In our current situation, these benefits are likely cancelled out by the negative impacts of DST on our circadian rhythms. The U.S. can maximize its population’s benefit from the springtime sunlight by implementing Standard Time year-round.
Mindy Reutter lives in New Haven.