You wake up early to the sound of an alarm for class or work on weekdays. But you follow a totally different sleep schedule on the weekends, sleeping in and going to bed later. Does this sound like you? Sounds like almost every college student I know, myself included!
But it turns out that this habit might have some seriously negative effects on your health, beyond just the rude awakening on Monday morning. Scientists call this condition “social jet lag” – the practice of following a different sleep schedule on the weekdays than on the weekends. Essentially, social jet lag means that your body’s clock, or your circadian rhythm, is out of sync with your weekday sleep schedule. Which is why, when you have the chance, you sleep in later on days off. In some cases, it’s the equivalent of changing time zones for the weekend, and switching back on Monday. That’s what led researchers to compare it to jet lag.
So what’s so bad about social jet lag? A recent study has shown that adults with differences between their weekday and weekend sleeping habits had triple the odds of being overweight. And that’s not all. The BMI, or body mass index, of overweight people tended to increase as the gap between their weekday and weekend sleep schedules broadened. So if you’re working on eating well and exercising to stay healthy, you might be undoing a lot of that effort with your different weekend “time zones.”
Past studies have linked sleep deprivation and irregular sleep schedules to higher BMI. There’s no exact answer as to why this is the case. Scientists suspect it’s because irregular sleep habits lead to irregular meal times, and changes on the cellular level that affect how we digest and store nutrients.
So what’s a college girl to do? It seems like social jet lag is almost unavoidable with a college schedule. And students aren’t the only ones who experience social jet lag – two-thirds of the participants in the study reported some differences between their weekday and weekend sleep patterns. The researchers who conducted the study actually think that employers should allow personalized schedules, so that workers can tailor their workdays to their natural clocks. Hmm… something tells me professors wouldn’t be so into that.
For now, it looks like daylight might be the best solution. The body’s internal clock is affected by exposure to light. So if you’re looking to fall asleep earlier at night and wake up earlier, you should try to get some sun in the morning. On the flip side, if you want to go to bed later and wake up later, you should try for more daylight in the afternoon and evening.
Garnet is a student at Columbia University in New York City. She is “that person” who starts dancing at a party when everyone else is standing around, and if there were a Facebook stalking Olympics, she would be a gold medalist. She also loves cheesy 90s music, and almost died of happiness when Vanilla Ice retweeted her. Once. Follow her on Twitter @garnethenderson.