Changing of the clocks

25. October 2019

Tired, listless, unable to sleep?

It’s that time of year again: the clocks go back one hour. We switch from summer time to winter time. Before we talk about our health and the impact it has on us, let’s look at the general discussion on the topic. Many people believe that the changing of the clocks was only introduced a few decades ago.

This is not the case, however, as in Germany summer time was first introduced during the First World War in 1916 as yet another way to save energy. Summer time was reintroduced during the Second World War, and was abolished again in 1950. It wasn’t reintroduced a third time until 1980.

Tinkering with time

Although Kaiser Wilhelm II was the first person to introduce summer time in Germany, Austria and Hungary on April 30, 1916, the idea had already been considered by US politician and inventor Benjamin Franklin as far back as 1784, who believed that energy savings could be made if people got up earlier in the summer. The idea resurfaced in the 19th century. Independently of each other, New Zealand-born George Vernon Hudson proposed a seasonal time change in 1895 and Englishman William Willett in 1907.

However, the idea of summer time wasn’t seriously brought back to the table until the oil price crisis of 1973. France pioneered the clock change in Europe in 1976, and Germany followed in 1980. It wasn’t until 1996 that the European Union drew up a uniform regulation, which still applies today. These days, most people prefer summer time to winter time, as the sunset shifts from about 9:00 pm normal time to 10:00 pm summer time.

This means that most people are awake for longer when it is light, which the majority find pleasant. People can enjoy leisure activities during daylight for longer, and meet friends with more pleasant outdoor temperatures.

And yet the changing of the clocks is controversial

As with almost everything, there are pros and cons when talking about the changing of the clocks. For this reason, the European Parliament has recommended phasing out the changing of the clocks in 2021. EU member states are now considering if they wish to remain permanently on summer time or winter time. The European Parliament has decided that, in two years’ time, each Member State can decide for itself whether to introduce permanent summer time or winter time.

In an online survey, of the total 500 million EU citizens, 4.6 million voted to abolish the changing of the clocks. However, it would appear that the changing of the clocks is a particular problem in Germany. Of these 4.6 million votes, a whopping 3 million came from Germany. Which makes you wonder: how can that be? Only 1.6 million votes were cast in the whole of the rest of Europe?

A narrow majority of Germans would prefer the permanent introduction of summer time. According to a different survey, the French are also in favour of introducing summer time on a permanent basis. In a citizens’ survey organised by the National Assembly, 59 percent said they would prefer a permanent summer time. So the issue threatens to be controversial here too. Also in Austria, Belgium, Sweden, Croatia and Malta, the majority of the population wants summer time to last all year round.

In Germany there is still a clear difference between the preferences of younger and older people. According to the survey, older people in particular would prefer a permanent winter time. According to “Focus”, 57 percent of respondents aged over 65 would prefer a permanent winter time and only 38 percent summer time. In contrast, 66 percent of young people between the ages of 14 and 29 were in favour of a permanent summer time, and only 27 percent winter time. Market research company Kantar Emnid surveyed 1009 voters for the survey.

Does the changing of the clocks cause health problems?

For many people, the changing of the clocks is tiresome. According to a survey by health insurance providers DAK, around one in four people (27 percent) fight physical or psychological health problems after the changing of the clocks. DAK statistics also suggest that the number of acute heart attacks rises significantly in the first days after the clocks change. However, according to another survey, three-quarters of Germans have no problems adjusting to the time change.

55 percent of over 1,000 respondents said that the change had no effect on their sleep patterns. Only one in four said it took them a day or two to get back on track. According to Focus, 17 percent of people suffer health problems related to the changing of the clocks. Now, 17 percent is not nothing, so these people’s concerns should be taken seriously.

It is understandable that babies will wake up at the wrong time after the clocks change, which places an added burden on the whole family. Children are also particularly susceptible to falling asleep or sleeping in, and are often tired during the day.

Farmers know that dairy cows need one to two weeks to adapt to new milking times. In plain language, this means that infants and animals suffer from stress. We have often discussed here in our blog how dangerous stress is for humans.

The pros and cons of both sides

The FDP parliamentary group in the Bundestag even claims that for a quarter of humanity, the period after the clocks change places a burden on their health, which sounds pretty exaggerated. Advocates of summer time argue that it is beneficial for us to be able to spend more leisure time in daylight during the evening, which then increases our productivity. Another popular argument is that lifestyle habits have changed, meaning that today we make more use of the evenings, so if we had permanent summer time our quality of life would be better.

Their opponents, as you could hardly fail to expect, hold exactly the opposite opinion. They argue that adapting to the new daily rhythm takes several days at least, is harmful to our health, and reduces productivity during the changeover phase.

It cannot be denied that when the clocks change, some people find that their “internal clock” is confused, with consequences such as lethargy, disturbed sleep, tiredness and bad moods. Researchers at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg have found that, especially in the week after the clocks change, people are significantly more dissatisfied. Bad moods are also common during this week.

People don’t return to their base levels until the second week after the clocks change, the researchers found. There remains one clear differentiating factor, however. People with severe time restrictions, such as working parents with children, suffer significantly more. Their satisfaction levels only return to normal during the second week after the clocks change. Adults without children are better off, making the adjustment in just a few days. For many people, however, the changing of the clocks is a disruptive element in their everyday lives.

Does physiology also play a role?

To date, no verified studies have been carried out, as they would require longer, much more elaborate periods of observation. Others claim there are physiological studies which suggest that some people may take up to four-and-a-half months to fully adapt to the clocks changing and to get their fluctuating circadian hormone levels (similar to those of the stress hormone cortisol) back on track.

This may be an exaggeration. The stress hormone cortisol is released in line with our daily rhythms. It is highest when waking up in the morning and decreases continuously until midnight. During the summer months, the release of cortisol is also adjusted to the course of the sun and the time the sun rises. This process does not adapt to the summer time, so our hormone levels are consequently one hour “out” compared to normal time, writes the Science Media Center.

Another undisputed psychological effect is that light, especially daylight, has a great effect on our psyche, which is why we talk about winter depression (known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD). Nevertheless, this is all still mere speculation, as to date no studies have been completed on the effects of the changing of the clocks. However, it is believed that there is less seasonal depression during the summer. Also, to date, no relationship between the changing of the clocks and psychological illness has yet been demonstrated. And it has also not been proven that the changing of the clocks can affect hormone level fluctuations.

Studies are contradictory and insubstantial

Nonetheless, psychologists and doctors believe that changing the clocks has a negative impact, as it has been shown that adjusting our body clocks can be problematic. According to a study by Imre Janszky and Rickard Ljung, the switch to summer time can increase the risk of heart attacks.

People who suffer from insomnia or organ diseases are more likely to be affected than those who don’t. However, to date there are still no clear indications as to whether the changing of the clocks can increase your risk of suffering a heart attack. Studies only seem to indicate that heart attacks happen at a different time after the clocks change in the spring, but not that the total number of heart attacks changes, the Science Medical Center emphasises once again.

According to biologists, the body struggles particularly with the switch from winter time to summer time. It’s a similar effect to taking a flight to the east – both are much more difficult for the body to cope with than the switch to winter time or a flight to the west. Agreeing with this theory, articles in newspapers ZDF Nachrichten and Merkur state that it’s much easier to delay our bodies’ internal clocks than to speed them up. Sleep expert Christian Cajochen, Professor of Chronobiology at the psychiatric University Hospital Basel staunchly contradicts this statement. He believes that these problems are largely in our imagination. “On a trip to London or another neighbouring time zone, we don’t usually have any problems adapting to a time shift of one hour”, says the sleep expert.

There’s one thing that we can hold onto, however; the changing of the clocks undoubtedly has a short-term effect on our well-being, and the tiredness and listlessness that we feel in autumn and winter has less to do with the switchover and much more to do with the diminishing amounts of sunlight, short days and long nights. The short-term consequences of the changing of the clocks have been examined much more frequently than the long-term ones, which is why the available studies are contradictory and insubstantial, as others have also noticed.

No doubt you’ll want to know which time we’re arguing for: well, let’s just say it’s 50/50.

P.S.: This article makes no claim to completeness and does not wish to give medical advice. If you feel unwell, please contact your doctor!