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Chances are, you have social jet lag, and you don’t even know it.
You might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, I didn’t go to Europe or across the country. How could I have anything that even resembles that type of condition?”
Unlike travel-based jet lag, the social variety happens right at home. Staying up late on the weekends, sleeping in on Sundays, and then waking up at 6 a.m. on the weekdays to head to the office puts your body in a state of chronic fatigue.
It’s those darn “social” obligations like friends, family, and work that often dictate when we sleep and when we wake up.
We should be listening to our biological clocks instead. If we don’t, we risk all sorts of health challenges. However, following a regular schedule in today’s fast-paced world is easier said than done, so in this article, we’ll talk about how exactly it happens and what you can do to minimize its effects on your body.
How Does Social Jet Lag Happen?
Before the Industrial Revolution, most humans followed a schedule based on nature. Our circadian rhythm, also referred to as an internal or biological clock, received environmental cues from the environment telling us when it was time to go to fall asleep and wake up. The most dominant signal was sunrise and sunset.
In today’s fast-paced environment, where you can live in brightness 24/7, it’s more challenging for people to synch up with that natural rhythm. Instead, it’s not uncommon for people to stay up well past dark, using electricity to light their homes and workplaces. They may even need to wake up before the sun to commute or exercise.
As you can imagine, by the end of the week most of us are exhausted, but we might have something planned on Friday night like a party, dinner out with friends, a trip to the movies or an evening with Netflix. We’re more likely to stay up past our usual bedtime, and then try to catch up on some zzz's by dozing until 9 a.m. or later.
If your standard wake-up time during the week is 6 a.m., for example, and you don’t wake up until 9 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, then you’ve effectively crossed a few time zones. And, therefore, you now have a form of jet lag, just like approximately two-thirds of the population.
Social Jet Lag Side Effects
It turns out that the regularity of our sleep schedule is as important as the number of hours we get. Our circadian rhythm releases different hormones during the day and night that regulate many of our bodily functions, including digestion and appetite. They also control mood, so if your schedule is off, then your attitude might be, too.
Another thing that happens when our rest schedules aren’t natural is that our brains get rewired. Unlike conditions like diabetes, heart disease and obesity that develop over time, it only takes a couple of nights of a suboptimal pattern to take hold of our mood.
When the brain detects an abnormality in the environment that affects its ability to heal, repair, restore and process, it sends more communicative ability to the amygdala, which is responsible for “fight or flight.” Therefore, an abnormal sleep schedule could make you more irritable and unable to handle stressful situations as gracefully.
When we ignore the light and dark cycles that cue us to wake and sleep, we throw two essential hormones off balance: ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin stimulates appetite, and leptin tells us that we’re full. When we’re experiencing this condition, we may be extra hungry, and even when we eat more, we might feel satisfied.
There’s also evidence suggesting that people on an abnormal sleep cycle don’t burn as many calories when they’re at rest. Over time, this could lead to a pattern of weight gain of up to 10 to 12 pounds in a single year.
Similar to a mood being affected, depression is another side effect. To compound the impact, those with abnormal sleep schedules may not get the sunlight they need during the day, which is key for battling depression.
An irregular sleep schedule reduces the body’s ability to regulate insulin. Over time, this increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Reduced Cognition and Memory
Lack of proper bedtime means the body has less time to process information, learn and store memories. If you’ve stayed up late and then have to wake up early, you’re not likely to perform well in these areas.
How to Avoid Social Jet Lag
A lot of experts recommend making an extra effort to go to bed and get up at the same time each day, or at least modify your sleep schedule by no more than an hour. Many people find that challenging and impractical, especially if extracurricular obligations necessitate a late night.
If you can’t adjust your schedule to follow a more uniform pattern, then we recommend getting sunshine first in the morning when you do wake up. Also, avoid the use of electronic devices and bright lights late in the evening. You may not be able to rest on a perfectly natural schedule, but by regulating your light exposure to a more innate rhythm, you may be able to lessen the effects it has on your well-being.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is there a treatment for it?
There’s no official prescription. The best thing you can do is be mindful of your schedule and make an effort to keep it on track.
For example, if you know that you have a late-night outing planned on Saturday and you have to sleep in on Sunday, try to make sure that you’ll be drowsy enough to fall asleep later that night at a reasonable time. There’s nothing worse than waking up on Monday morning feeling exhausted.
When life gets busy, proper bedtime is often the first healthy habit that goes by the wayside. However, sleep is vital to health. Without a regular schedule, you’re vulnerable to weight gain, heart disease, obesity, and depression. By getting enough sleep and adhering to a regular schedule, you can take control of your health in a way that’s both inexpensive and pleasurable.