Well, here it is. The day the clocks change and we transition from daylight savings to standard time in the UK. It is only a one-hour shift in time, so it should only be a minor blip for us to adjust to – or so one would think. The reality is, however, the change can have a significant negative impact on our mental wellbeing.
The clock change moves one hour of daylight from the late afternoon period to the early morning period. This means it will lighter in the mornings for a while until we reach the dead of winter. Most people won’t get the opportunity to be exposed to that morning light, though, because we are still sleeping or are indoors getting ready for school and work etc., and won’t get any benefit from the time shift.
The impact of this sudden one-hour reduction in light exposure causes our system to increase the amount of melatonin it produces earlier in the day. This can result in sluggishness and sleepiness happening every day from late afternoon onwards. Because it happens suddenly, it can create a shock to the system for some people and their brains don’t respond well to the change. This change can ironically cause insomnia, but in most cases, can cause excessive daytime sleepiness. For countries higher up in the Northern Hemisphere, such as the UK, this can be a serious problem.
Prolonged daytime sleepiness can have a negative impact on our mood. For people who already have a mood disorder such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, there is a much greater risk of a sudden depressive episode to occur. Even without a mood disorder, the negative impact on mood caused by this change, if not improved, can lead to an episode of depression developing.
It is thought that the excessive daytime sleepiness dampens motivation, meaning the sufferer is less likely to exercise, eat well or socialise in the dark evenings. This too can have a negative impact on mood which can lead to an episode of depression in some people.
Although people suffer from depression at any time of the year, including the summer months, depression can be linked to lack of sunlight in the winter. Scientists cannot give us a definitive reason for this, but the result of many studies show that exposure to daytime light can improve mood and lessen the depressive symptoms. This type of depressive episode is known as ‘winter depression,’ or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
So, the clock change might give us an extra hour in bed, but for some people, it can cause a sudden depressive episode to occur, and for others, it can signal that their annual winter depression is on its way.
The doctor’s recommendations to combat this is easier said than done for many, and that is to get out in the daytime and get exposure to as much sunlight as possible. This is thought to stave off the production of melatonin for longer and improve excessive daytime sleepiness. Other recommendations include daily exercise and eating well-balanced meals. Go easy on the carbs! Another recommendation is to get up and go to bed at the same time, 7 days a week. This helps reset the body clock and produce hormones that will lessen daytime sleepiness. The recommendations are not particularly easy to do for many of us, which might explain why winter depressive episodes are high.
Although not linked to the clock change, another recommendation is to take vitamin D supplements, as a low level in the blood stream is also known to cause depression. Your doctor can assess whether your summer lifestyle meant you have not stored enough vitamin D for the winter period and will recommend if a supplement is needed.
So, when you change your clocks tonight, consider all the things you can do to maintain your mental wellbeing and stave off an episode of winter depression.