How does changing time affect our health?

Published 15 Mar 2022 • By Candice Salomé

The UK was one of the first countries to adopt daylight saving time in 1916. Since then, with some exceptions, the clocks change twice a year: in late March and late October. In 2022 the clocks will go forward on 27 March at 1:00 AM, starting the 7-month period called British Summer Time (or daylight saving time).

But why, exactly, do we change time in spring and fall? Can this time change have an impact on our health? How can we prepare for it?

We explain it all in our article! 

How does changing time affect our health?

Why do we change the time twice a year? 

After the dark, cold, winter days of December, January, and February, many of us look forward to the longer days that come with British Summer Time (BST) in March. The idea of an extra hour of sunlight brings joy to many after the long winter period and signals the ticking closer of summer.

But when and why did this idea of changing time begin? For the answers, we need to look back in time ourselves!

What are the origins of turning the clocks forward and back?

Some people like to credit Benjamin Franklin with the idea of turning back the clocks. Though he did recommend that people get out of bed earlier in the morning to limit the use of lamp oil and candles in a 1784 letter to the editor of the Journal of Paris, his recommendation was more of tongue in cheek, and nothing came of it.

Later in 1895, New Zealand entomologist George Hudson developed the modern concept of DST, proposing a two-hour time shift, so that he could benefit from more after-work sunshine hours for hunting insects in the summer. He suggested moving the clocks forward two hours in October and then two hours back in March.

Similarly, in 1905, British builder William Willett proposed moving the clocks ahead 20 minutes every Sunday in April and then setting them back 20 minutes every Sunday in September. He published and campaigned for his idea through his pamphlet, "The Waste of Daylight". Unfortunately, despite his efforts, Willett did not live to see his daylight saving concept bear fruit, as he died in 1915.

British Summer Time, also sometimes called Daylight Saving Time, was first practically used during World War I; in 1916, a number of locations within Imperial Germany set their clocks ahead one hour as a way to conserve power and fuel for the war effort. On 17th May, 1916, Parliament passed the Summer Time Act, which moved the clocks forward one hour the following Sunday, 21st May.

During the Second World War, Britain adopted British Double Summer Time, which moved the clocks forward two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), to aid with fuel reserves and increase productivity. After the war, the UK went back to British Summer Time, except during the summer of 1947, when it was temporarily reinstated after the fuel shortages caused by the severe winter of 1946/47.

In 1968, the Harold Wilson government adopted Daylight Saving Time all year round, calling it British Standard Time, between 27th October 1968 and 31st October 1971 as a trial. After a free vote, the House of Commons chose to discontinue the experiment in 1972.

In 2002, the European Union decided that clocks should change on the same day for all member states:

  • Summer Time starts: on the last Sunday in March
  • Summer Time ends: on the last Sunday in October

Since the UK left the EU in 2020, these dates have been maintained. In recent years, the European Commission and European Parliament have passed legislation proposing to end seasonal clock changes in Europe, though nothing has come into force as of yet. Similar debate has occurred in the the UK, but as of late, the UK Government has no plans to end daylight saving.

Can daylight saving time have an impact on our sleep?

In the fall, when we move the clock back by one hour, we gain one hour of sleep. In spring, it's the opposite: we move the clock forward one hour and we lose one hour of sleep. While our clocks and digital devices are easy to reprogram when changing time, the same can't always be said for our internal clock.

Our circadian rhythm or "biological clock", an internal process regulated in the brain, is synchronised on a 24-hour day defined by the alternation of day and night. Each time the time changes, it can be de-regulated for several days, especially in the spring, when we change to BST, or Summer Time.

For some people, this can cause: 

  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Changes in appetite - excess hunger, or loss of hunger
  • Decrease in work productivity
  • Mood swings or disorders

Our internal clock regulates, among other things, the secretion of melatonin, also called the sleep hormone, and immune system activity. This mechanism allows us to mark time and establish life rhythm (getting up at a certain time, eating at a certain time, etc.).  

GMT, or the time we follow during the winter months, is "preferable" in a sense to Summer Time, because it is closer to our body's actual rhythm, making it easier to adapt. On the other hand, at the changeover to Summer Time, it is more difficult to go to bed "early" because it is still light out. This impacts children even more. 

According to sleep specialists, changing time takes a harder toll on the body than jet lag related to travel. Indeed, during a time shift, we change our activities and our way of life - the individual adapts. However, when faced with a time change, where one loses or gains an hour, the individual has to maintain the same rhythm of life. 

How can changing time impact our health?

Health-related problems linked to changing the clocks are more common in certain people. There are three main groups at risk:

  • Older people: As we age, we become more sued to fixed schedules and shorter sleep, so older people are therefore more likely to have trouble adjusting to time change.
  • People who are sick (or hospitalised): People who are sick or even in the hospital are already in a weakened state and are therefore more likely to experience problems adapting to the new seasonal schedule.
  • Children, especially infants: During the changeover to Summer Time, infants go from sleeping and waking up in the dark, to sleeping and waking up in the daylight. This can cause sleep issues.

In addition, a study published in June 2020 in the scientific journal PLOS Computational Biology highlights the existence of four health risks: cardiovascular conditions such as stroke, injuries, mental and behavioral disorders, and diseases related to the immune system such as gastroenteritis

A Swedish study has shown a 5% increase in the number of myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) in the 15 days following the switch to daylight saving time. Could this be a consequence of the fatigue caused by this time change? The switch to standard time in the fall only leads to a 1.5% increase in heart attacks. 

Also, the change to standard or GMT has a psychological impact on human beings because it contributes to seasonal depression, which is often associated with the lack of light. The latter affects around 2 million people in the UK

Another complication created by the change to standard time is the increase in both car and pedestrian accidents caused by either the increased fatigue or the decrease in daylight hours during commuting hours. Research by the University of Boulder published in the scientific journal Current Biology has found that fatal car accidents in the United States spike by 6% during the work week following the "spring forward" to daylight saving time. A 30% increase in pedestrian and cyclist deaths has also been observed. 

How to help your body adjust to the change to British Summer Time? 

It is estimated that it takes about a week to adapt to the change of rhythm caused by time change, whether in summer or winter.  

Here are a few tips to help you and your body adjust:

Prepare yourself for the time change in the days leading up to it

You can gradually shift your wake-up time in the days leading up to the time change. For example, moving your alarm clock forward by a quarter of an hour to thirty minutes to the gradual transition can be helpful. 

Take short naps in the days following the time change

Don't hesitate to take short, 15-30 naps in the early afternoon in the few days after the time change. This will limit the effects of fatigue and give you a boost in the middle of the day, while also preserving the quality of your sleep at night.

Make most of the sunshine

This is especially true for the change from BST to standard time in the fall, but it's important to get out of the house every day to take advantage of the sunshine and thus prevent the risk of developing seasonal depression

Don't be afraid to give light therapy a try

In winter, when the hours of sunlight decrease, don't hesitate to test out light therapy. If you do, be careful, however, use a light therapy lightbox during the day and not in the evening, as this could alter your circadian rhythm and make it hard to fall asleep. 

Maintain your regular routine

Don't change your bedtime, your mealtimes, or the time you exercise so as not to disrupt your biological clock

Was this article helpful to you?   
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Take care!

avatar Candice Salomé

Author: Candice Salomé, Health Writer

Candice is a content creator at Carenity and specialises in writing health articles. She has a particular interest in the fields of women's health, well-being and sport. 

Candice holds a master's degree in... >> Learn more


on 15/03/2022

I'm confused in one part of the article it says spring goes forward an hour, and another part of article it days spring goes back an hour??

lesmal • Ambassador
on 16/03/2022

Thank you for explaining the changes and why.

I lived in both Zimbabwe and South Africa for 60 years. We never had a change of clock system. One woke up at the same time, summer, winter, autumn etc, and kept to one's normal routine no matter what the season was.

Since arriving in Northern Ireland and living here for four and a half years, the change of clock system has frustrated me year after year. My waking up time here has not changed to what we knew and got used to in Africa, and my usual routine has continued. We also know that our dog's wake up time remains the same; of course he has no idea that the clocks change in summer and winter.

Apart from having to change the timing on all electronic devices, including my watch, I still do not understand why this continues, and it frustrates me further when trying to adjust to this pattern. If I do not put the change over times in my diary in March and October, I would never know as my timing routine has and always will be the same.

I see no point in changing clocks for 1 and 2 hour periods ahead, and will always relate my time of day to that I am accustomed to, ie Africa time.

on 31/03/2022

I hate it when that time comes around, being retired time is not important only for appointments with health. I find it irritating changing clocks twice a year. I have been thinking of having two clocks in each room, then I wouldn't have to worry about it so much as long as I label them correctly.

on 15/05/2022

Really interesting article and I have become more sensitive to the changes as I have got older. It’s get more difficult every year. I seem to suffer most in the British Summer Time change and although it states that it would take a week for our bodies to adjust this year it took five weeks before I began to feel more normal. I would happily go back to what it was before.

Unregistered member
on 18/05/2022

The clocks were changed during the First World War so that farmers had MORE light to tend their crops, they went Forward in the Spring and Back in the Autumn. This was to increase overall production from our farms due to the ships bombed in the North Atlantic, bringing wheat and other commodities from overseas. It was during this time that the Land Army was set up. to make the most of the light available.

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