Hurricane Sandy left millions of east coasters without power this past week -- and though some are finally beginning to see the light once again, for others the wait is far from over. But while extended power outages bring obvious, extreme inconveniences to the waking hours, they could also be wreaking havoc at night.
"You can get your sleep screwed up very quickly," says W. Christopher Winter, M.D., medical director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Va. When the power goes out, we see a disruption in zeitgebers, a German word for "time givers," or those little items your body uses to understand where it is in the day, he explains -- things like light exposure, exercise, bathing, social interaction and eating. "Those are the things that really help your body kind of figure out where it is in a 24 hour period," he tells HuffPost.
But when we lose power, all those routines go out the window -- we eat when we can, bathe when we can and exercise when we can (if at all). And after the sun sets, light is no longer streaming in from overhead bulbs and technology. "Your schedule starts to become disturbed and so does your sleep," Winter says. And so when the sun sets in the early evening and you've got nothing to do, heading to bed early can seem like the only option. "If you're someone who's very sleep deprived perhaps it's a blessing, but for most people you're waking up at 4 in the morning," he says. More bad news? We'll have even fewer daytime hours when we push our clocks back an hour earlier this Sunday morning to mark the end of daylight saving time (in New York City, for instance, the sun set at 5:51 p.m. on Friday -- this Sunday, after the change, it's expected to set at 4:48 in the evening).
"You're basically a hostage of the daylight schedule which, of course, is not great in November in New York," says Joe Ojile, M.D., founder and CEO of the Clayton Sleep Institute in St. Louis, Mo. and a board member of the National Sleep Foundation. When you add to that the anxiety of dealing with the storm and all of its subsequent damage and power outages, you have a recipe for a bad night's rest. "Stress is the single most important thing that keeps you from sleeping," he says. (And on top of that, research shows that shortchanging your shuteye can make you more vulnerable to daytime anxieties, he explains, creating a vicious cycle.)
Ojile and Winters agree that your sleep schedule can be reset quickly under these circumstances -- meaning that by the time you emerge from the other side of the outage, you could have shifted ahead multiple virtual time zones, going to bed at, say, 7:30 p.m. eastern time and waking up seven hours later at 2:30 in the morning. "You can very easily get your days and nights almost reversed," Winters says.
There's not much you can do in the midst of an outage -- if possible, Winters suggests seeking some ambient light and activity in the early evening, by visiting, say, your local gym if it's open and safe to access. "Exercise tends to wake people up a little bit ... If you want to do jumping jacks in the dark you can do that too," he jokes.
For children, whom it might be hard to convince it's bedtime when it's always dark, he suggests sticking as closely as possible to your regular bedtime routine. If you typically eat dinner together, clean up, take a shower or a bath, play with certain toys, change into your pajamas and read two books, for instance, do your best to maintain that normalcy, allowing kids to wind down. If some parts of the routine aren't feasible without power, like taking a bath, replace it with another soothing activity. "Try to recreate that march toward bedtime as much as possible," he says.
What you shouldn't do is pressure kids to sleep, which only creates anxiety about the process, ultimately making it harder to ease into a restful state. If the disrupted routine means they can't fall sleep right away, allow them to stay up with a flashlight and a book, or another peaceful, quiet activity. But enforce a regular wake-up time to help re-set healthy patterns. "Try to keep them on that schedule on the back end even if the front end is difficult," he says. "[Say], 'Whatever happens, I'll see you at 6:30.'"
But while there are things you can do during a power outage to mitigate the damage to your sleep cycles, the real work comes once the lights are back on. If you said goodbye to to the power with your internal body clock set to eastern time and welcomed it back closer to London time, certain behavioral strategies can help you reset, similar to how you would adjust from jet lag or other body clock shifts. Winters recommends sticking to a regular wake-up time, seeking bright light first thing in the morning (either from a light machine or the sun) and avoiding naps until your body is back on track. It typically takes about one day to adjust for each hour you move your circadian clock.
It's also worth noting that it's not all bad news when it comes to sleep and power outages. While the stress and routine changes may cause disrupted sleep schedules for some people, for others, it can provide a much needed push to go to bed just a little bit earlier. In fact, roughly 30 percent of U.S. workers report getting fewer than six hours of sleep, despite recommendations that adults shoot for between seven and nine hours each night. (And we know chronic sleep deprivation is linked with a host of serious health problems.)
"It might give them a chance to catch up on that sleep," says Laura Barger, Ph.D., an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate physiologist in the division of sleep medicine at the department of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "Once they see how good they feel with getting adequate sleep they may decide that it needs to be a priority in life." If you're already working to re-set your patterns after a sleep disruption, why not strive for a solid eight hours, she suggests: "That would be a positive outcome."