Night Owl on Weekends? You Probably Have Social Jet Lag

When your sleep schedule is out of whack, so is your body. Try these tips to minimize the unhealthy effects of an inconsistent bedtime.

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Social Jet Lag

Sleeping in on the weekends may feel like a treat — even a necessity — but the (kind of counterintuitive) truth is, you may be doing your body more harm than good when you catch those extra zzzs.

In fact, a shift in a person's sleep routine is linked to developing a variety of chronic conditions, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes, according to a November 2015 study published in the Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

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Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh studied the sleep patterns of nearly 500 adults who wore wristbands that measured their sleep and movement 24/7.

Nearly 85 percent of the volunteers had inconsistent sleep and wake times depending on whether it was their day off or a work day. As a result, those adults who had a "greater misalignment" between their sleep schedules on work and non-work days were more likely to have poorer cholesterol profiles, larger waist circumference, higher body-mass index, higher fasting insulin levels, and were more resistant to insulin than those who had more consistent sleep patterns throughout the week.

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This misalignment is better known as "social jet lag," which basically describes having a sleep schedule that doesn't match up with your body's circadian rhythm.

"For example, many people stay up late on Saturday night and get up late on Sunday," says James B. Maas, PhD, former professor at Cornell University and current CEO of Sleep for Success. "It's as if we've flown our body — and our circadian rhythm — to London that weekend without ever leaving home, putting us into a constant state of jet lag. And when we do that, it's called the Monday morning blahs."

These metabolic changes — caused by sleep deprivation — are associated with many health conditions, such as obesity, anxiety, poor cognitive performance, weakened immunity, and a higher risk for some cancers.

Snooze So You Don't Lose

So how are the majority of people who don't live perfectly structured lives — such as new moms, shift workers, those of us who work long hours yet still want a social life — supposed to go to bed "on time" each night?

"We don't prioritize our tasks and time, and we live in a culture that doesn't value sleep," explains Dr. Maas. "People are always looking for one simple thing to do other than spending more time sleeping, but that's smoke and mirrors — that's nonsense. If you get adequate sleep, you'll be in a better mood, you'll be healthier, more efficient and more effective."

There are some small lifestyle adjustments that can help break the cycle and give us more time for work, play, and sleep, he adds. Here are six of them:

1. Block off certain times for personal stuff.

"Most people continuously stop what they're doing to check and write non-work emails and take personal calls," Maas says. "They're doing this all day long, making it harder to get back on task, and that's kind of a mess." Instead, he advises all of his clients to set aside a few specific times each day for personal phone calls, emails, and social media.

2. Start saying "no" more often.

"We tend to over-commit ourselves," Maas says. In order to live a less hectic life, be more selective about the personal and professional events that fill up your calendar. For example, have you considered asking your sister to take a cab home from the airport instead of being her chauffer? And is it necessary to stay the entire four hours during an after-work outing with your colleagues? De-cluttering your schedule opens the door to a less exhausting life.

3. Outsmart your electronics.

Ideally, Maas recommends shutting off all devices — TVs, smart phones, tablets, laptops, etc. — at least one hour before bedtime. "The monitors put out a great amount of blue daylight spectrum light, which blocks the flow of melatonin, keeping us awake," he explains; however, if this is your favorite way to unwind, try to keep screens at least 14 inches away from your face and reverse the type color on your e-reader so that you're reading white type on a black background.

4. See the light.

For people who work extra-long hours or have a shift job, consider trying light therapy. These special devices can help wake the body with a bright light in specific wavelengths. In turn, the light can also help shift the internal body clock and regulate sleep patterns.

5. Take a power nap.

"It's for people who have crazy schedules, helping them cut down on their sleep deprivation, reducing their chances of heart attack and stroke," Maas says, adding that a power nap should last between 15 and 20 minutes, "but no longer than 30 because then you can go into deep sleep, which means you'll be groggy for the two hours after waking up."

6. Consider "banking sleep."

Maas insists that saying good night and good morning at the same times each day of the week is the best way to condition the sleep-wake cycle in the body. But if you'd like to sleep in an extra hour on Sunday morning or stay up late on Friday night, he suggests hitting the hay a little earlier the night before. "Yes, you can sleep the extra hour on the weekends or on your day off, but just remember, you can't make up for lost sleep by only sleeping adequately on the weekends."

"Clients tell me all the time, 'Gee, I was sleeping six hours, and tired all day long. Now I'm sleeping eight hours and getting everything done really quickly,'" Maas says. "The bottom line: Sleep more so you can do more." 

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