Social Jet Lag & Sleep: Is Your Schedule Harming Your Health?

‘Tis the season for late-night holiday parties and family gatherings. But all that merriment can wreak havoc with your body clock. Staying out until the wee hours and then sleeping in on the weekends can cause “social jet lag” – a term experts use to describe the widespread practice of following a different sleep schedule on weekdays versus the weekend. This sleep disruption not only leaves you feeling sluggish during the week; it can lead to serious health problems, says sleep specialist Timothy Grant, M.D., medical director of Baptist Sleep Center at Sunset.

Although it may seem like a good idea to catch up on some Z’s after a late night, shifting your sleep schedule by a few hours causes a violent jerk in the circadian rhythm – the internal body clock that governs your sleep-wake times as well as your appetite, explains Dr. Grant.

“This irregular sleep pattern has a similar effect on your body as jet lag after traveling,” he said. “It’s like going to Europe and back over the weekend. Your body clock shifts as if you’ve traveled to a different time zone.”

Dr. Grant cautions that the effects of social jet lag can be as serious as the effects of a chronic sleep disorder like sleep apnea. In the short term, an irregular sleep schedule can affect judgment, mood and cognitive ability, and increase the risk of accidents and injury. Recurring sleep disruptions can lead to serious health problems including obesity, diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Lack of Sleep Linked to Weight Gain

Researchers evaluated the sleep habits of thousands of individuals and found that people with different weekday and weekend sleep schedules had triple the odds of being overweight. These findings, published in Current Biology, match the results of numerous studies that have found an increased risk of obesity and other diseases among people whose circadian rhythms are disrupted by sleep disorders and shift work. That’s because when people change their sleep schedule, they also change their meal times, explains Dr. Grant.

“Studies show that eating later is associated with weight gain – even if when you consume the exact same foods and number of calories,” Dr. Grant said. “Metabolism disruptions influence the way you digest food and how you incorporate it into your body fat. Sleep deprivation also causes changes in the hormones that signal when you’re hungry and full.”

Dr. Grant also points out that a social calendar that leads to social jet lag is often accompanied by drinking alcohol and smoking, which only compound sleep problems. “These substances poison the sleep architecture and keep you from getting the deep sleep you need to feel rested,” he said.

To prevent social jet lag, Dr. Grant recommends following healthy sleep hygiene tips. The No. 1 tip: Maintain a stable bedtime and waking schedule, even on the weekends. Here are a few other recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation:

  • Avoid eating or drinking right before bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol close to bedtime.
  • Exercise regularly, and early in the day.
  • Avoid long naps and napping after 3 p.m.
  • Increase exposure to natural light during the day to help maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  • Create a good sleep environment – one that is quiet, dark and comfortable and free of electronics.

Most people experience at least some social jet lag – and that’s to be expected, especially during the holiday season. However, Dr. Grant warns that consistently living against your body clock can cause sleep problems and be detrimental to your health.

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