Late nights, rich food, and bottomless mimosa brunches can leave you with an unhealthy case of “social jet lag.”
Live hard on weekends, and your health may pay the price.
This phenomenon called “social jet lag” — where much-needed sleep patterns are upset — is linked to increased fatigue, worse moods, and even heart disease and obesity.
“It’s like having jet lag or doing globetrotting,” said Orfeu Buxton, an associate professor in the Department of Biobehavioral Health at Pennsylvania State University. “An irregular schedule is a health risk in itself. If you’re out of synch, it’s a cacophony.”
Even a little social jet lag, it turns out, has negative consequences.
Each hour of social jet lag is linked to an 11 percent increase in the likelihood of heart disease, according to a new study presented at the Associated Professional Sleep Societies. And all age groups are equally affected, not just the young.
The term social jet lag was coined by researcher Till Roenneberg, a professor at the Institute of Medical Psychology at the University of Munich. He likens it to flying from Paris to New York one day, and then a few days later flying to Tokyo. With jet lag, though, the body clock, which is sensitive to darkness and light changes, catches up faster when you reach a destination. With no such signals, social jet lag can grab hold longer.
Lay the blame on circadian rhythms, an internal body clock that thrives on regularity. Going to sleep and waking at the same time works well. And these regular cycles play a big part in keeping us healthy.
All mammals have circadian rhythms. And they govern sleep cycles, hormone releases, and other body functions. They can even orchestrate the gut, which is increasingly seen as the key to good health. Social jet lag, however, introduces noise into the system and influences the body clock.
“Sleep and circadian rhythms also play a big role in heart health,” said Michael Grandner, PhD, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona, and a senior author of the study. “People with insomnia, for example, have increased risk of heart disease.”
Cardiovascular disease even has its own arrhythmia called holiday heart, that occurs around times such as New Year’s, said Dr. Nicole Weinberg, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. When living hard is frequent, you can “get stuck with arrhythmia issues,” she said.
Shift workers who work at night or on rotating shifts can especially suffer from sleep disorders, according to studies. These workers are more likely to have higher diabetes and heart attack risks. “They don’t live as long,” said Buxton.
Off-kilter body clocks can even affect work time. Annually, the United States loses about 1.23 million working days due to poor sleep. It’s also linked to higher mortality risks, according to a Rand study.
Yes, the body can reset. But not always quickly when making up for longer sleep disruptions. Hormones like cortisol take a while to process, said Weinberg.
“So you can feel the residual effects from social jet lag for weeks,” she added. “It doesn’t get better in the blink of an eye.”
The remedy? Getting back to a regular sleep schedule, actually, and sticking to it.
“Seven hours of continuous sleep is the magic number,” said Dr. Raj Dasgupta, an assistant professor at the University of California Keck School. “You need that to get into a state of deep sleep.”
Even meditation won’t help, he said. “No amount of it will change the circadian rhythms,” he added.
The upshot is that sleep is an excellent health marker, said Buxton. “If you’re sleeping well, chances are that other things are going well too,” he said, “and you’re less likely to exercise irregularly.” So along with sleep at the same times, eating well and exercising are important too.
How do you know if you’re descending into social jet lag? “If you’re dragging during the day,” said Grandner. “A lot of people are chasing energy and not finding it.” He suggests thinking of sleep as an investment in time. “We’re all trying to get the most out of our day,” he said.
Binging and squeezing the most out of every moment isn’t productive, Buxton agreed. “Slow down a bit and prioritize sleep and healthy behaviors,” he added. “Subtle changes in regularity have a strong effect.”