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'Falling back' may not bring better rest during time of coronavirus, doctor says

Valerie Singh a nurse who works the night

Valerie Singh a nurse who works the night shift, says the switch from Daylight Saving Time to standard time affects her work. She is shown at her home in Bellmore on Friday. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

Mix in a deadly, job-slashing, school-disrupting novel coronavirus with a potentially head-spinning presidential election and a time clock change and don’t be too surprised if even that extra hour when everyone "falls back" this Sunday fails to result in a restful night, doctors said.

"Many people are developing insomnia; certainly there is an increased anxiety in the world right now," said Dr. Frank Coletta, chief, critical care and associate director of the Sleep Cener at Mount Sinai South Nassau.

"They are constantly ruminating at night, ‘what do I do, was I exposed to COVID-19, where can I get a test?’ " he said, telling them to resist the urge to search for late night answers on the internet or talk shows.

"There is a very high level of uncertainty … and some people are feeling very uneasy and threatened and it’s challenging for them to get a good night’s sleep," Dr. Lois Krahn, a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist and sleep specialist, told reporters on a Friday conference call.

"I’m just worried everyone has responded to the changes brought on by the pandemic by shortchanging their sleep," she added.

COVID-19 has, for instance, greatly expanded the workload for families, as so many parents must work from home — while also tackling their children’s remote instruction, experts said. And some after-school programs have been suspended, curtailed or forced outside.

"Sometimes teams want to start practice at 4 or 4:30 p.m.," said Doreen Dunne, council director, Girls on the Run Long Island, an Eisenhower Park-based nonprofit that combines fitness with learning social skills. But with schools wary of hosting groups, her athletes now are limited to outdoor fields and tracks just as the days shorten. "All of our teams end by 5 p.m. for that reason."

Like many others, she finds winter's darker days a little depressing. "I’m always missing my sunshine; I love the summer." For her, exercise is a fine offset. "I just get on my Peloton to get those indoor clouds out of my head."

Although exercise is an insomnia-buster, tiring the body while easing anxiety, Dr. Krahn advised getting workouts in two hours before bedtime to allow one’s temperature to cool back down.

This country has switched the clocks back and forth every spring and autumn since 1918, and for decades scientists and politicians have debated the pros and cons.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a Darien, Illinois nonprofit, has urged axing Daylight Saving Time because standard time "more closely aligns with the daily rhythms of the body’s internal clock."

And it pointed to research that found increased risks of motor vehicle accidents, cardiovascular events, and mood disturbances following the annual "spring forward" to Daylight Saving Time.

U.S. Republican senators from Florida, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, in mid-September proposed a bill that for one year would keep Daylight Saving Time, saying this would reduce car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, seasonal depression, robberies and childhood obesity — and lift the economy.

The Congressional Research Service then updated its report on the subject, noting "Only Congress can change the length of the DST observance period; however, since 2015, at least 45 states have proposed legislation to change their observance of Daylight Saving Time."

However, that report pointed to additional research done in the United Kingdom and Ireland — but mainly based on U.S. studies — that raised doubts and concluded more studies were needed.

"We found that the short-term effects of DST are likely to be small and potentially negative or positive depending on time of year and day," said the report.

"The long-term effects tend to be positive, but may be attributable to factors other than light. Future research needs to take into consideration these factors where possible."

In any case, sleeplessness is hazardous. Going 18 hours without it "is the same as someone having a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%," the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website.

Skipping sleep for 24 hours raises that equivalent blood alcohol gauge to 0.10% — .02% higher than the legal limit in all states, the CDC says.

The National Safety Council found 32% of employers reported injuries and near-misses caused by worker fatigue in a June 2018 survey, said Maureen Vogel, a spokeswoman for nonprofit advocates based in Itasca, Illinois.

The twice a year time clock changes do complicate responsibilities for some nighttime workers, such as Mount Sinai South Nassau assistant nurse manager Valerie Singh, who not only must work an extra hour on that day but factor in how the switch may affect when her patients are due for their medications.

Though she has acclimated to working through the night, she is a sun lover. "In winter, on my days off, I go to sleep a little bit early … just so I can see a little bit of the day."

But for some workers it may make little, if any, difference.

"Most guys are heading out to their fishing grounds at 3 a.m.," said Bonnie Brady, executive director, of the Montauk-based Long Island Commercial Fishing Association by telephone. "If they are lucky they come home when it’s still daylight,"

And whatever the clock may say, transitions should be respected, advised Tatyana Kissin, an early childhood-parent educator at the Waldorf School in Garden City. "It is possible that children might get hungrier an hour earlier," she said.

The doctors agreed the hormone melatonin can prove helpful and is safer than prescription drugs and advised avoiding screen time when trying to quiet the mind before turning the lights out.

Dr. Krahn recommended using comfortable headphones to listen to a program in the dark as a way of distracting oneself from sleep-preventing worries.

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