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Daylight Saving Time 2012: Could 'Springing Forward' Hurt Your Health?

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It's hard enough to get the sleep you need each night, but on Sunday at 2 a.m., with the beginning of daylight saving time, we'll spring our clocks forward and lose out on one of those precious hours of rest.

This time change is much trickier for our bodies to handle than when we "fall back" in November. That's because so many of us aren't getting enough shut-eye to begin with, and being robbed of an additional hour can put us over the edge. In fact, as many as 47 million people are sleep deprived and 43 percent of Americans say they rarely or never get a good night's sleep during the week.

"It's hard to get up an hour earlier," Dr. Sam J. Sugar, director of sleep services at the Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa, a wellness spa and weight-loss program in Miami, Fla told The Huffington Post. "When we do, since most of us don't sleep the recommended seven or eight hours anyhow, another hour less is not good for us, and we wind up fatigued and tired during the next day."

Much like traveling between time zones, the changing of the clocks requires our bodies to adjust to a new sleep and wake schedule that feels similar to jet lag. "Our internal clocks, which run on a more or less 24-hour cycle -- that clock is suddenly confused," Sugar said.

And, just like traveling east is more difficult to adjust to than traveling west, so too is "springing forward" compared to "falling back" explains Dr. Robert Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute, a laboratory of sorts that examines the impact that environment, behavior and sleep equipment have on sleep quality. Because our normal circadian rhythm is slightly longer than 24 hours, it's easier on us to extend the day, like we do in the fall, rather than cut the day short by an hour as we do this weekend, he said.

While adjusting to this slightly-altered cycle can take up to a week, for most people, it will only take a few days, said Sugar. "Our brains are incredibly good at adjusting to anything we throw at them, and for almost everybody it isn't a problem," he said.

But for the people who do struggle to slip back into a normal sleep routine (most likely the night owls among us, according to MSNBC), the time change carries with it some harrowing risks:

A 1996 study found that the number of car accidents on the Monday after daylight saving time begins increases, as does the number of fatal, alcohol-related crashes, according to a 1998 study.

While only about 1 percent of drivers crash because of drowsiness each year, that equals a total of 1.9 million drivers, according to the National Sleep Foundation. More than half of all drivers have driven at least once in the past year while feeling sleepy, and 28 percent do at least once a month.

In the days after the shift, heart attacks are also more common. The effects of sleep deprivation on the heart are well-documented: Skimping on zzz's can promote the buildup in arteries that leads to heart attacks and strokes, as well as increase the risk of high blood pressure and inflammation. Plus, the most sleep-deprived people often weigh more, increasing their risk for heart problems even before the time change.

Workers also report more injuries on the job the Monday after the beginning of daylight saving time. And while it might do more harm to our employers than to our own bodies, the day is also witness to a dramatic increase in what's come to be known as "cyberloafing" -- or wasting time on the Internet, according to a recent study that examines the link between lack of sleep and decreased productivity.

So what can you do to stay alert while others trudge through the next few days?

Experts suggest starting to shift your sleep and wake times as early as the Thursday or Friday night before, but certainly hit the hay a few minutes earlier than usual Saturday night.

On any weekend, it's important to stick to a regular sleep schedule -- although many people don't comply, in favor of a Saturday night out on the town or a lazy Sunday morning in bed. But if there were ever a weekend to follow that advice, it's this one. "We're in a constant state of jet lag on the weekends," said Oexman. "We go to bed later, we wake up later -- we've already compromised the situation. Just this one weekend, change your behavior so you can better adapt," he said. Go to sleep and wake up as close as possible to the time you would on a weekday, and go easy on the alcohol. Then, try to get some sun as soon as possible Sunday morning, he said. "Sunlight helps us 'retrain' our circadian clock and allows us to get back on the right time [schedule]."

Come November, we'll have the opportunity to relish a much-needed extra hour of sleep, but in the meantime, being tired, cranky and unproductive and putting our health at risk for an extra hour of evening sunlight has led some to question the necessity of continuing the daylight saving time tradition. It was meant originally to provide more daylight during the winter so communities could be more productive and reduce energy use, but, Sugar said, "This crazy notion does not actually save us anything at all."

How does daylight saving time affect you? Tell us in the comments.

For more on sleep, click here.

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