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Seasonal Changes in Sleep

Dr. Daniel Barone discusses how seasonal changes can impact sleep. He goes over common sleep issues and problems that can impact patients when daylight savings time changes. He highlights the importance of consistent schedules and gives tips on healthy sleep routines. He also recommends sleep evaluations should issues persist year around.

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Seasonal Changes in Sleep
Featured Speaker:
Daniel Barone, MD, FAASM, FANA

Dr. Daniel Barone received his medical degree from New York Medical College in 2006 after graduating summa cum laude from Fordham University in 2001. He completed an internship in Internal Medicine at Saint Vincent's Catholic Medical Center in 2007 and a residency in Neurology at Beth Israel Medical Center in 2010. He then went on to complete a fellowship in Sleep Disorders at Stony Brook University Medical Center in 2011. 

Learn more about Daniel Barone, MD, FAASM, FANA 


Melanie Cole, MS (Host): Welcome to Back to Health, your source for the latest in health, wellness, and medical care, keeping you informed so you can make informed healthcare choices for yourself and your whole family. Back to Health features conversations about trending health topics and medical breakthroughs from our team of world-renowned physicians at Weill Cornell Medicine.

I'm Melanie Cole. And joining me today is Dr. Daniel Barone. He's the Associate Medical Director of the Weill Cornell Center for Sleep Medicine, an Associate Professor of Clinical Neurology at Weill Cornell Medical College-Cornell University and an Attending Neurologist at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. And he's here today to talk to us about the effects of seasons, the time change, and weather on our sleep patterns, sleep problems, and our sleep quality.

Dr. Barone, thank you so much for joining us again today. So, let's start by asking you, how do seasons affect sleep patterns? What do we know about the underlying mechanisms behind these effects?

Dr Daniel Barone: Sure. Thank you for having me again, Melanie. Seasons definitely play a role in our sleep, most likely because of the amount of sunlight that's available to us. So, during the winter time, we're exposed to less sunlight and that has a role in terms of how we feel, in terms of our mood in some cases. And as the times shift, as the seasons shift, we get more exposure to sunlight, both earlier and it stays out later. It sends a signal to our brain that we're supposed to be awake and that can, again, raise up our mood, raise up our energy levels. So, there definitely is a role for sunlight, especially when it comes to weather change and how we feel in sleep.

Melanie Cole, MS: Now, further that for us with daylight savings, time changes, and what that does to our bodies, our circadian rhythms, and then how that affects our sleep patterns. For some people, it can be really affecting. I mean, it can affect the quality of how they feel during the day for a little while.

Dr Daniel Barone: Definitely. So if you look at the literature, the number one day for car accidents in America is actually the Monday after daylight savings time, which we just had over the weekend. And the reason for that is because we are, as a group, a sleep-deprived society. You know, we get an hour less of sleep than we did compared to a hundred years ago. And if that's not bad enough when we take an extra hour out of that, like we did over the weekend, sometimes it can take people a couple of days to kind of recover from that lack of sleep, which has now become even more pronounced.

But in general, though, the sun kind of coming out earlier, so to speak, that can cause people to wake up a little bit earlier. But like I said, for the most part, though, it's a good thing, more exposure to sunlight that keeps us awake, tells our brain it's time to be awake and can raise our mood and energy levels.

Melanie Cole, MS: So then, let's talk about some of the sleep issues that people kind of get to as the seasons change with the time change, and that statistic about car accidents is quite sobering really. Now, tell us some of the sleep problems that you observe that individuals experience.

Dr Daniel Barone: Well, it's more so going into the winter months, you tend to see this type of seasonal affective situation play out where the lack of exposure to sunlight can bring on depression or if somebody is prone to it, low mood, low energy. That is probably the biggest thing that we see in terms of time change. But for the other way, like what we just experienced, the fact that we're sleep-deprived and we take another hour out of that, that plays a role for the week or so of daylight savings. But I think in general, this just speaks to the fact that as a whole we are somewhat sleep-deprived, and I think we need to do a better job of that as a society of focusing on getting enough sleep, getting enough quality sleep.

Melanie Cole, MS: So, give us your best advice, Dr. Barone. How do you advise patients to adjust their sleep routines or habits to accommodate these changes that we're feeling? I mean, it doesn't always work to go to bed earlier because then sometimes you wake up earlier or if you go to bed later and try and sort of outlast the time change, then you're exhausted the next day. What do we do?

Dr Daniel Barone: I think the key thing is to be consistent. I think that's the number one thing that I would tell people to do, which is leave yourself enough time to wind down at nighttime. Make sure you're getting up similar times every day and allow your seven hours or so, allow that to be enough time. Because what I find is, people are staying up too late and we have what we call social jet lag, which is being on the computer, being on the phone, playing video games or so. And that process, the light that comes from those screens of those sources, that almost does what sunlight does, which is keep us awake. And then, what happens is we still have to wake up at the same time in the morning and we end up being very, very tired. And then, the process continues.

So, what I usually tell people is you almost want to go along with the sun. So when the sun goes down at nighttime, you want to start to wind down, okay? You don't have to shut off everything, but you want to begin that process of saying, "Okay, I'm going to give the screens a rest. I'm going to do what nature's telling me to do. I'm going to maybe read a book or meditate or listen to things as opposed to watching." And then when you wake up in the morning, the idea is to get sunlight as soon as you can. You don't want to sit in a dark room. You want to open up those shades or maybe even go outside and get that sunlight. Because that's the kind of, we call it a zeitgeber, which means time-giver. The sunlight really tells us this is the time to be awake and when it's down is the time to go to sleep.

Melanie Cole, MS: Well, that is great advice. And now, some people talk about light exposure and you're talking about the sun and how we need to really follow the sun, which is such great advice. What about things like light exposure and regulating our sleep wake cycles in the context of the seasonal variations and weather changes, does that help? And if so, what are we talking about when we talk about light exposure?

Dr Daniel Barone: So, that's kind of what I was just mentioning about like when you get up in the morning, you do want to get some sunlight. Because what happens is when we're beginning the process of going to sleep, your brain starts to produce melatonin. When the sunlight goes down, the brain starts to produce melatonin. And melatonin is the neurochemical or the hormone which begins the process of our brain getting ready for sleep. When you wake up in the morning and you're exposed to sunlight, that shuts off melatonin and that tells your brain, "Hey, it's time to be awake right now."

So, what you want to do is, like I said, is you want to try to follow that along. Light exposure in the morning, especially now that the sun is coming up earlier should be the way to go. When it's like the winter months and there's not as much sunlight, things like bright light therapy, where people can get that almost anywhere these days, sitting in front of a bright light may help. They have alarm clocks where it kind of mimics how it gets brighter and brighter and brighter over the course of like 20 or 30 minutes, that mimics how the sun comes up. These are techniques that can be used. But for now, though, when we're getting into the spring and summer months, I think the most important thing is getting sunlight in the morning and then at nighttime, giving yourself a good 30 to 60 minutes without screens.

Melanie Cole, MS: Dr. Barone, and I think that that quality of sleep and sleep hygiene, what you call it, is so, so important. But when we're suffering from these sleep disturbances and disorders and things, how do you differentiate whether it's seasonal or whether it's something going on that could be clinical in nature?

Dr Daniel Barone: What I usually tell people is this, and this goes across the board, is take a step back. So if you know yourself, "Coming into the spring and summer months, you know, I tend to be more active. I get outside more. I get more sunlight. I feel good. I don't have any sleep trouble. And then, winter comes and I have these problems," that's probably seasonally based. But if your sleep problems, whether it be falling asleep, whether it be staying asleep, whether it be unrefreshing sleep, if those problems continue year round, despite what's happening with the sun, or what's happening with your activity levels, if that maintains, then you want to get a sleep evaluation, possibly a sleep test, or at least speak to somebody who does that work.

Melanie Cole, MS: That's such great advice. Dr. Barone, you're such a great guest as always. Give us your best advice now for the sleep hygiene. Go over it for us. Summarize it for us because I think it's important and some of us can't hear it enough times, especially when we think of even our teens and our college age kids who are sitting there on their phones until two in the morning and then they complain they're so tired the next day. So, give us your best advice.

Dr Daniel Barone: What I usually do is I break it down this way. I say the bed and the bed environment, whether it be a bedroom or whatever, should be considered almost a holy place. It's almost like a temple where you sleep. And nothing should desecrate that temple outside of sleep, which means that you don't want to be on your phone in bed. You don't want to watch TV in bed. You don't want to be on your computer and doing work in bed. You want to use that space and that time for sleep and sleep only, okay? And you want to prepare yourself for that "sacred act" by winding down without screens a good 30 to 60 minutes before bed, okay? I think if people just follow that advice and maybe try to get some exercise in the morning and some sunlight, I think that would help a lot of people.

Melanie Cole, MS: Well, it certainly is great advice. Dr. Barone, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your incredible expertise. It's always so good to hear from you and you give us such workable, usable information. Thank you again. And Weill Cornell Medicine continues to see our patients in person, as well as through video visits, and you can be confident of the safety of your appointments at Weill Cornell Medicine.

That concludes today's episode of Back to Health. We'd like to invite our audience to download, subscribe, rate, and review Back to Health on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, and Google Podcasts. And for more health tips, go to weillcornell.orgrg and search podcasts. And parents, don't forget to check out our Kids Health Cast. There's so many great podcasts there as well. I'm Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for joining us today.

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