Daylight Saving Time is more than a nuisance — it may be wreaking havoc on our health

    26 October 2015

    God, it was difficult staying up to watch Downton Abbey last night, wasn’t it? After supper at an unfeasibly early 6.30pm — because you were just too ravenous to wait a second longer — there were hours gaping ahead before Lord Grantham et al arrived to assuage the Sunday night feeling. That intervening chasm of time was spent, in my case, picking at bits of food I didn’t really need, watching pop music videos and refreshing my emails every ten minutes in case something – anything – had happened.

    This may be a bit of a waste of time for me, but it is nothing at all compared to the wider effects of Daylight Saving Time and the havoc that ensues every time the clocks change.

    Daylight saving was originally suggested as a joke by Benjamin Franklin in 1784. It wasn’t until the 20th century — when Franklin’s humour had presumably faded with age, to be replaced with the authority of ‘old stuff’ — that anyone even considered it. Then, it was Germany who adopted it in 1916 as a way to conserve energy during the First World War. Britain followed suit a month later. The apocryphal reason we kept going was that Scottish milkmen were delighted with the extra hour of light in the mornings. This is sadly false, but Alex Salmond campaigned vigorously in favour of daylight saving, saying that abolishing it would ‘plunge Scotland into darkness’.

    It might be time for the SNP to wake up and smell the evidence. Daylight saving is a fiasco — and, what’s more, the chaos and missed meetings are the least of our troubles.

    Chronobiologists have long suspected that changes to our diurnal rhythms have a negative effect on us. In 2008 a study found that suicide levels peak during the spring weeks following the commencement of daylight saving. The risk of heart attack on the Monday immediately following the clocks changing is 25 per cent higher than usual. Car accidents jump by 17 per cent for that week. This is obviously because everyone’s exhausted — less of a problem in winter than spring, admittedly — but the discombobulation of a shift in our circadian rhythms is an important factor, too.

    Disturbance to our internal sleep patterns make us cranky and vulnerable. Relationships suffer from the clocks changing; that unwanted extra hour is the perfect time to have a row. We get fatter, too. This year a team of chronobiologists presented arguments against daylight saving to the European Parliament: every hour of ‘social jetlag’, they claimed, increases the likelihood of obesity by 33 per cent, which in turn costs the European Union €131 billion in healthcare every year. Not to mention the implications for mental health: there is a direct correlation between the clocks changing in the autumn and incidences of seasonal affective disorder. For the elderly and the housebound, shorter days can mean long hours of solitude in the dark.

    And to top it all, it seems that changing the clocks has a negligible effect on energy consumption. A large-scale 2006 study in Indiana found that energy consumption is actually one per cent larger as a result of daylight saving: we switch on more lights to try to replicate the time our bodies think it should be.

    If we set our clocks to match those of our neighbours across the Channel, we’d have blissfully protracted evenings in summer and longer days in the winter. London is closer to Paris than it is to Edinburgh. If the Scots are so keen to hang on to this outdated, pointless practice then let them. On this point at least, we’re with Europe.