Have you got social jetlag?

Have you got social jetlag Long hours, a hectic social life and constant snacking You must be suffering from the latest modern malaise…

|

UPDATED:

21:38 GMT, 20 May 2012

Do you wake to an alarm clock every morning feeling groggy Work long hours and feel tired during the day Lie in at weekends in a bid to catch up on sleep

The chances are that, like an estimated 80 per cent of the population, you’re suffering from social jet lag.

It might sound like a gimmicky modern malaise, but scientists are increasingly convinced that social jet lag is a real problem caused by the demands that everyday life places upon us – such as longer working hours and artificial stimulants like caffeine and nicotine.

Feeling sleepy during the day, restless at night, frequently craving comfort food and generally feeling out of sorts are all symptoms of social jet lag

Feeling sleepy during the day, restless at night, frequently craving comfort food and generally feeling out of sorts are all symptoms of social jet lag

Worryingly, it has the potential to do more than just leave us feeling dozy and grumpy. The symptoms of social jet lag are similar to those of travel jet lag: feeling sleepy during the day, restless at night, frequently craving comfort food and generally feeling out of sorts. The difference is that when we fly across time zones, our bodies adjust to their new rhythm after a few days.

'When we travel around the world, we experience acute jet lag,’ says Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford. ‘But as soon as we’re exposed to the dark-light cycle of our destination, our bodies start to sync to the new pattern.

SLEEPY HEADS
Women get an average 6 hours of sleep a night. Experts recommend eight.

‘The problem is that social jet lag is a chronic condition for many of us — we never give our bodies the opportunity they need to adjust.

‘All of our body’s systems run to a certain rhythm — be it our digestion, brain, muscles, metabolism or our capacity to sleep — and the reason why they know when to do what is because we expose the body to sunlight. Receptors in the eye register the presence of light so the body knows when it’s day and when it’s night.’

But since the introduction of electric light, our lives don’t work in the way they used to. We no longer rise when it gets light and go to bed when it gets dark. In fact, our internal clocks are entirely out of balance.

Caffeine and cigarettes are linked to 'social jetlag'

Caffeine and cigarettes are linked to 'social jetlag'

We ask our digestive systems to work late at night when they’re powering down; we force our muscles out of bed when they think they should be resting, and we artificially stimulate our brains with caffeine when they’re exhausted. All this is compounded by the fact that we’re expected to be constantly available on mobiles and BlackBerrys. The end result We feel constantly out of kilter, tired and irritable.

Even more seriously, the effects of social jet lag could be causing us long-term health problems. Researchers have found that the greater the social jet lag, the greater the consumption of cigarettes, alcohol and caffeine. There’s also an increased likelihood of sufferers being overweight.

‘Most days when the alarm goes off at 7am, I just feel exhausted and always need a cup of tea to get me going,’ says solicitor Rebecca Godwin, 30. ‘I normally work 12-hour days, not finishing until 9pm or 10pm so, once I’ve eaten dinner, I’m rarely in bed before midnight. The next day I need regular sugar hits to keep me going. I weigh at least 1 stone more than I did when I started this job five years ago.

‘If you don’t have enough time to sleep properly, you just don’t have the time to make the best choices for your health.’

‘If you don’t have enough time to sleep properly, you just don’t have the time to make the best choices for your health.’

To calculate your personal social jet lag, subtract the number of hours of sleep you get on an average working week night when you’re woken by an alarm clock from the number of hours of sleep you get when you don’t use an alarm to wake you up. So if you normally go to bed at 11pm and get up for work at 7am, but sleep in until 9am when you don’t set your alarm, your social jet lag is two hours.

‘We already know people who work night shifts have higher rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease than the rest of the population,’ says Professor Foster. ‘So it’s not really surprising that social jet lag, which affects sleep, could have a role to play in health.’

And don’t fool yourself that having a glass of wine to relax yourself or taking a sleeping tablet can get around the problem. ‘If you use alcohol or sleeping tablets to drop off, you’re actually getting sedation, rather than biological sleep,’ says Professor Foster.

‘Proper sleep helps us to consolidate memories and devise solutions to complex problems, but sedation doesn’t. Going to work without having had a decent night’s sleep is as unprofessional as going to work in a dirty shirt or without brushing your teeth.’

You would have thought that more than 100 years after the lightbulb was invented, our bodies would have evolved to cope — but the problem is that electric lights simply aren’t bright enough.

‘The natural light we see first thing is about 50 to 100 times brighter than the artificial light we have in our homes, and by the time it gets to noon, it’s actually about 500 to 1,000 times brighter,’ says Professor Foster. ‘Our bodies will always defer to the brighter light, even if we’re exposed to it only fleetingly.’

So WHAT’S the answer ‘We’re not going to push the 24/7 genie back in the bottle,’ says Professor Foster. ‘But we can all think about how we adapt other parts of our lives to cope with these changes. If you know your ability to process food at night is worse, change the way you eat later on.'

‘Try to maximise light exposure first thing. Going for a run in the morning combines light exposure with exercise and is a good way of trying to consolidate the sleep-wake cycle.’ Professor Foster also believes we need to prioritise sleep. ‘Sleep is the first victim of our busy lives, but it’s essential not only for our health, but also for us to be able to function effectively at work and in life,’ he says. ‘In fact, sleep is critical for us to exist as creative, happy individuals.’