What you need to know about social jet lag

By admin
28 December 2015

Life can wreak havoc on your sleep patterns, leading to exhaustion, weight gain and illness. Here’s how to beat it.

Rise at the crack of dawn during the week to get ready for work then have a lie-in over weekends to catch up on much needed sleep. We’ve all been there at one point or another – but our yo-yo sleeping habits could be the very reason we’re not feeling refreshed.

Many of us probably suffer from social jetlag, a condition that leaves you feeling tired during the day and restless at night and could be why you crave comfort food and caffeine.

It’s as if the body operates in different time zones, leaving you with the jet-lag that long distance travellers often suffer, experts say.

So even if you get the seven to eight hours of sleep a night most adults need, you could still be constantly exhausted because your internal body clock is completely messed up. The condition can have a devastating effect on your health.

Also called environmental or behavioural sleep disorder, social jetlag can lead to weight gain, diabetes and heart disease because it’s usually ongoing and people aren’t aware they have it.

“The more social jet-lag you have the more likely you’re a smoker, the more alcohol you drink, the higher your caffeine consumption,” says Dr Till Roenneberg of the Institute of Medical Psychology at the University of Munich in Germany who’s studied the effects of social jet-lag. We don’t prioritise sleep but we really should, Joburg-based sleep specialist and neurologist Dr Kevin Rosman says. “Sleep is literally essential for survival.”

How you get social jet lag

The internal clock that governs your sleepwake cycle is called your circadian rhythm. This daily 24-hour cycle of biological activity is synced to light and dark and tells your body when to sleep and when to wake up, Johannesburg neurologist Dr Neera Bhikha says.

Everyone’s circadian rhythm isn’t the same – some people are hardwired to be early risers and others are night owls and therefore naturally tend to sleep later.

The problem occurs when you’re both because of work, for example. The number of hours you sleep in the week and how long you sleep at weekends can also have a negative effect.

If you sleep six hours on weekdays then nine on weekends, your body clock goes haywire. “How much sleep you need is genetically determined,” Dr Rosman says. “Some people are short sleepers while others are long sleepers but we do know the average person needs seven to seven-and-a-half hours of sleep a night.”

What social jet-lag does to you

Because your circadian rhythm affects practically every biological process in your body, the implications of regularly ignoring your body clock are far-reaching.

You’re likely to: 1. Have trouble falling asleep when you want to. S Wake up feeling groggy. 2. Be less productive because your brain doesn’t function optimally. 3. Eat more because it plays havoc with your hunger hormones. 4. Have a weakened immune system because it affects the production of infection-fighting proteins. 5. Be more prone to high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.

How to beat it

The good news is there’s a remedy for social jet-lag. And it’s quite simple – regular sleeping hours.

“You have to train your body to sleep at a certain time,” Dr Rosman says.

“And if you can’t control the time you go to sleep you should wake up at the same time every day so your body becomes alert at the same time every morning.”

So it’s not only babies who need sleep training – adults benefit from it too. This can be done by training your brain to react to your actions, Dr Rosman says. If you’re not sleepy, don’t get into bed – if you do and end up tossing and turning, this trains your brain to think getting into bed doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to sleep.

“Instead, get up and read a book – but not something thrilling. Sit in a chair and read, and get into bed only when you feel yourself becoming sleepy. You’ll probably fall asleep immediately and this will train your brain and body to understand that getting into bed is a trigger for sleep.”

And it’s important to get some sunshine when you wake, Dr Rosman says.

“It must be sunshine because the lighting inside a house isn’t enough. If you can, have your breakfast outside. Exposure to sunlight helps your brain to become active sooner.”

Alternatively, open your curtains wide or spend even just a few minutes in your yard or on the stoep.

How napping can help

A short snooze during the day can help you to shake social jet-lag. These tips apply even if you don’t have the condition:

1. A 10- to 20-minute power nap is the most effective – it gives you the boost you need without upsetting your night-time sleep cycle, neurologist Dr Neera Bhikha says.

2. Don’t nap for longer than 60 minutes – you’re likely to wake up feeling groggy and it will affect your night-time sleep.

3. The best time for a nap is 2 pm as your body naturally wants to rest at this time. In countries such as Spain the siesta is so much part of the culture that shops close so people can go home for a nap. If your work schedule makes it difficult to have an afternoon nap, try to have a short nap in your lunch break, Dr Bhikha says.

Step-by-step action plan

If you suffer from social jet-lag, here’s what to do to get back on track.

  • Get nine to 10 hours of sleep three to four nights in a row – this is your “reboot period”. If you start at the weekend, go to sleep earlier so you can stick to your wake-up time during the week.
  • Drink a glass of water soon after you wake up – it helps to clear that foggy feeling.
  • Try to spend 30 minutes outdoors soon after you wake up as this helps to reset your body clock. If you can’t be outdoors, open all the curtains as soon as you’re up.
  • Avoid caffeine after 2 pm – this is vital during the reboot period but is generally a good habit to get into so try to keep it up after the three to four days.
  • It’s not easy to do but try not to use electronic gadgets in bed or keep them on your bedside table.

“Bright lights should be avoided before sleep and these include the LED screens of tablets and smartphones,” Joburg-based neurologist Dr Neera Bhikha says.

“Light is a stimulant, like coffee, and keeps you awake.”

After the restorative three to four nights of more sleep, regulate your sleep pattern by turning in and waking up at the same time every day. And yes, that includes weekends! If you don’t, social jet-lag will simply creep up on you again.

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