Could You Have Social Jet Lag?
If you’ve ever felt physically or mentally out of sync with your life, you’re no stranger to “social jet lag.” We all have times when we feel more inclined to sleep or eat or when we have more physical energy or mental focus. The concept of social jet lag refers to the conflict between what our bodies need, based on our internal biological clocks, and what our lives require, based on our jobs, our family lives, and other factors. Unlike the jet lag we get from traveling across time zones, social jet lag stems from how we live our lives at home. The phenomenon also occurs when people sleep in during the weekends, thereby confusing their body clocks even more with their changing sleep patterns.
Social jet lag is more than just an annoyance or an inconvenience. Recent research suggests that living in a way that forces you to be perpetually out of sync with your natural sleep rhythms and body clock could be hazardous to your health, increasing the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and possibly even certain cancers. What’s more, a 2011 study from Brazil found that social jet lag may be a risk factor for depression, especially among people in their 30s, and the risk is significantly higher among those with more than two hours of social jet lag.
“When we maintain regular social cycles or schedules, then our clocks coordinate metabolic processes so as to maintain balance,” explains David J. Earnest, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience and experimental therapeutics at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. Our internal clocks also regulate the daily rise and fall in blood pressure and body temperature, the appropriate release of key hormones, and normal cell division in our bodies. “When our clocks cannot keep up with constant time changes during social jet lag,” Earnest says, “this disrupts normal balance and metabolism is shifted to a point where a high-fat diet is more likely to produce obesity and type 2 diabetes than in a non-jet lagged individual.” Social jet lag also may interfere with eating, exercise, and stress-management habits ways that can affect your health, for better or worse.
Based on a series of studies on the prevalence of social jet lag and the toll it can take, researchers at the Centre of Chronobiology, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, recently suggested “that work (and school) schedules should be adapted to chronotype [a person’s preferred timing for sleep and activity] whenever possible.” Many experts in the U.S. agree.
Indeed, some people can’t retrain their bodies sufficiently to adapt to the needs of their social schedules, and “they should not be working shift schedules or harassing their sleep,” says Joyce Walsleben, R.N., Ph.D., an associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine and author of A Woman’s Guide to Sleep. “In general, we need to understand what our sleep needs and times are and try our best to provide them. The earlier you can do that, the better. If you find you are a delayed sleeper [or a night owl], thinking about a career that would allow for that is useful.”
It’s not just a matter of personal preference. There’s a genetic basis for being an “early bird” (a morning person) or a “night owl” (a night-lover), Earnest says. Naturally, early birds will struggle to adapt to working night shifts, and night owls are likely to have difficulty working daytime jobs, especially if they start early. “Both circumstances would make it difficult for their body clocks to synchronize to the opposite schedule,” he explains. “This problem coupled with the tendency to [delay] the normal cycle for their body clocks on weekends may be associated with similar health risks as that reported in shift workers.”
When tailoring your schedule to suit your sleep needs isn’t an option, you can still take steps to prevent or mitigate the effects of social jet lag. The most important thing is to maintain consistent and regular sleep-wake patterns from one day to the next and one week to the next, even if you’re working a night or graveyard shift, Earnest says. “This allows our body clocks to keep ‘time’ properly rather than resetting on a frequent basis.” Keeping your body clock running on a consistent schedule can help you feel and function at a higher level and perhaps lower your risk of developing obesity and other health problems.