Social jetlag has nothing to do with travel. In recent years our travel wings have been clipped with most folks living a version of perpetual house arrest; sleeping, eating and working at home. Yet, social jetlag is widespread and could be the culprit behind your morning grogginess, mental fog and Monday loathing.
It all starts with your circadian rhythm
Whether you’re a parent, shift worker or weekend warrior, your irregular schedule is wreaking havoc on your body clock. Your circadian rhythm marches to the beat of its own 24-hour cycle and governs all of your bodily functions including digestion, temperature, mood and sleep. Unfortunately the modern lifestyle of irregular schedules, demanding work/school commitments and Saturday night drinks doesn’t align with your circadian rhythm. Your body is running off two separate clocks, your biological clock and your convoluted social clock. This misalignment leads to social jetlag.
How do you become social jetlagged?
The easiest and most common way to achieve this negative state is to get up early on weekdays for work or school and then sleep in later on weekends. According to your circadian rhythm, your day begins when you open your eyes to light or get up and start moving your body. If that’s at 6am, then your body will track that as your wakeup time for the next morning. Your body will also become tired around 12-15 hours of being awake which works well to be in bed early enough to wake up at 6am again the next day. In the evenings your body knows what time to start winding down and your digestion, body temperature, hormone levels and blood pressure are working in sync with this circadian routine.
But then Friday rolls around. You might go out for drinks, stay up and watch a movie or have guests over for dinner. You may not feel tired but many of your body systems are desperately trying to power down in accordance with the weekday schedule. Then, on Saturday morning there’s no need to get up so early and you might even try to catch up on some sleep debt from the week. Because you sleep in on Saturday morning you end up going to bed later on Saturday night and wake up late again on Sunday. And, you wonder why you can’t get to sleep fast enough for work on Monday morning…Sound familiar? You have created circadian misalignment in just 2 days.
This scenario doesn’t just apply to the Monday-Friday work crew. It can happen if you work weekends, if you’re a stay at home parent, a student or if you work from home. Anywhere that you are drastically changing your routine, social jetlag can occur.
The toxic effects of social jetlag
The effects of social jetlag are actually very similar to travel jetlag. When you travel between timezones your body clock is still running off the timezone from which you started and needs time to adjust to the new one. Anyone who has experienced this will know how it impacts your ability to sleep, your hunger levels and even your digestion. You might wake up at 2am wide awake and starving because your body clock thinks it’s 7am.
If you’re social jetlagged, you’ll likely be experiencing:
- Daytime tiredness
- Mental fog
- Lack of concentration
- Morning grogginess
- Poor mood such as irritability, low tolerance
- Impaired sleep latency (struggling to get to sleep)
While the odd late night or big sleep-in will cause some discomfort, that’s likely the worst of it. The issue is when circadian rhythm is repeatedly disrupted weekly. This can result in chronic social jetlag and can begin to promote much more serious health problems such as:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea
- Elevated stress
- Weight gain and increased BMI
- Mood disorders such as depression
- Increased risk of type 2 diabetes
Your guilty pleasure of sleeping in every weekend could be contributing to your existing health issues or creating news ones.
Social jetlag and your chronotype
Your chronotype can actually worsen your social jetlag and the health risks associated. “Chronotype” refers to the natural inclination towards activity in the mornings or evenings. You will likely already know if you are a morning person, “morning larks”, or an evening person, “night owls”. This is largely dictated by genetics and you can sit anywhere along the spectrum including a mix between the two.
When it comes to social jetlag, it’s bad news for the night owls or evening types. Owls experience more social jetlag because they struggle to get enough sleep in the week and sleep in later on weekends to catch up. As a textbook night owl I know this routine all too well. I’ve disliked mornings for as long as I can remember and frankly adore a Sunday sleep-in. So you can imagine how disheartening it was to read studies showing that owls are more likely to develop chronic health issues such as depression, anxiety, weight gain, cardiovascular disease and diabetes as a result of circadian misalignment. Humbling and alarming.
While morning types may experience pressure from friends to stay up late on the weekends, it’s the evening types who suffer the most social jetlag and probably need the information in the following paragraphs the most.
How to combat social jetlag
Just getting more sleep doesn’t rid yourself of social jetlag. Where a chaotic sleep pattern causes social jetlag, order and consistency can alleviate it.
Create a consistent sleep schedule
If you can only make one change in your life, do this. Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule realigns your circadian rhythm and allows all of your metabolic functions to fall into a natural cycle. Go to bed and wake up like you do on a weekday. Night owls will likely need the help of an alarm for this but it will get easier.
What about your social life? The odd late night here and there is ok and if a sleep-in is too hard to resist sometimes, limit it to within an hour of regular rising time. This will keep circadian disruption to a minimum. Tired from the week of early starts? Go to bed earlier. You can still be a rockstar and be in bed by 9.
Get light and movement as soon as possible
As soon as you wake up, bathe in natural (preferable) or bright artificial light. Bright light first thing in the morning signals to your brain that it’s time to wake up and helps to regulate your circadian rhythm, assisting you to fall asleep easier at night. Even better, combine light with exercise in the morning. Take the dog for a walk or go for a jog. Do some stretching on the porch. Get light and get moving.
Be sleep hygienic
Practicing sleep hygiene throughout the week can defend against social jetlag as you will be less likely to accumulate sleep debt and create circadian misalignment. This will make it easier to fall asleep each night and easier to wake up earlier on the weekend. Click here for a complete PDF with easy ways to improve your sleep hygiene and schedule.
Work with your chronotype, not against it
As much of your chronotype is determined by genetics, it’s a lot easier to work with it rather than against it. Tweak your schedule where you can to accommodate your natural rhythm.
Night owls: Shake up your morning to allow more hours of sleep. Do exercise at lunch time or after work. Schedule more mentally strenuous tasks for mid-morning or later. If you’re a parent and have a partner, work with them to take on the morning routine while you manage the evening routine. Volunteer for work shifts later in the day or work with your employer to have flexible hours. Think outside the box and find something that works for you.
Morning larks: Tackle your biggest tasks in the morning when you’re feeling the best before the afternoon slump. Exercise early in the day as you will likely not be motivated in the afternoons. Try to plan social events for earlier in the day so you aren’t out too late at night.
The need for change
The one-size-fits-all approach to the modern 8-5 work routine isn’t conducive to the health and longevity of its entire workforce. Growing evidence from studies in chronobiology show the need to adapt work schedules and provide flexible options to people based on their chronotypes and home life routines. Social jetlag is a silent killer of your energy, motivation and productivity. It prevents you from being the best you can be each day. But, knowledge is power. I’ve begun to see and feel changes in my own life. By identifying areas you can tweak your current routine, you can make small changes to improve your sleep, energy and vitality.
What are you willing to give up and change for your health? What positive changes have you made? Comment below or contact me directly.