Last year, Lynda Trujillo, 26, cut a seemingly sweet deal with herself: She traded sleep for success. The busy hospital coordinator from Jacksonville, Florida, was already working full-time when she started her own side business, a fitness website called Hit the Road Jane. These days, she powers up her laptop the second she gets home from her day gig, writing content and wooing sponsors into the wee hours. Most weeknights she's lucky to score five hours of sleep; four hours, if she wants to squeeze in a workout.
Unsurprisingly, Lynda crashes on the weekends—hard. On Saturdays and Sundays (after fitting in some late-night fun with her girlfriends), she sleeps past noon. Not that her binge snoozing makes a dent in her extreme fatigue; in fact, she often feels worse afterward and totally zonked come Monday morning. "I'm just always beat," she says. "It seems no amount of sleep can make up for it."
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 67 percent of women struggle with getting enough shut-eye, and half of all women say their fatigue hinders their work and social lives. No doubt they're not sleeping enough. But research shows there's something else at play—a phenomenon that affects 70 percent of the population, including Lynda. It's called social jet lag, and it's putting women's health at risk.
A Broken Rhythm
To understand social jet lag, you first need a primer on circadian rhythm, the internal clock that governs your sleep-wake cycle and informs just about every bodily and behavioral process. Ruled by a brain area called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN, your circadian rhythm is far from malleable. You're stuck with the one you were born with and hardwired to crave sleep or feel awake at certain moments. Each time you mess with your circadian cycle—say, with a super-late night out or a pre-sunrise flight—your SCN takes a hit before bouncing back. If, however, you overrule your rhythm on a regular basis by going to bed or waking up at totally different times each day, your SCN goes haywire, pushing your body into something that feels an awful lot like perpetual jet lag.
Nothing incites such social jet lag more than lopsided sleep schedules like Lynda's. Her long-term habit of skipping sleep during the week, then snoozing seven hours later than normal on weekends, is the physiological equivalent of flying from New York to Alaska and back two nights a week—every week.
Problem is, the pesky problems that come with normal jet lag—fatigue, poor concentration, irritability—snowball into much bigger brain and body issues with the more long-term social jet lag. Ignoring your circadian rhythm not only means you'll have trouble falling asleep when you want to but that everything from your career to your memory to your waistline will take a blow too.
The Price of Perma-Exhaustion
Ironically, women who mess with their shut-eye to get ahead may actually be stunting their professional growth. "When you restrict sleep, you don't think as clearly," says Nancy Collop, M.D., director of the Emory Clinic Sleep Center in Atlanta. "Your response time suffers. You're simply not working at your peak." That's probably because sleep deficits hamper brainpower in a big way. According to the Society for Neuroscience, an insatiable need for rest can push a sleep-starved brain to briefly fall asleep—even while the rest of you is awake. At best, that can lead to embarrassing stumbles (spacing out during a big meeting); at worst, dangerous mistakes (drowsy driving causes an estimated 100,000 accidents per year).
Social jet lag may also impede decision making and might curb brain-cell production and muddle long-term memory. What's more, an impaired circadian rhythm can short-circuit your neurochemical balance and put you at risk for mental-health troubles, including depression and seasonal affective disorder, says Iryna Sapieha, M.D., of the Swedish Sleep Center in Seattle.
Equally disturbing is the impact social jet lag has on the rest of the body. It can accelerate aging by shifting hormone production levels to those typically seen in senior citizens (welcome, thinner, wrinkle-prone skin). And regardless of how many hours you log at the gym, sleep deprivation piles on the pounds by zapping glucose tolerance (the body's ability to metabolize sugars) and ramping up hunger hormones that make you feel ravenous. To wit, a new study shows that every hour of social jet lag-even sleeping in a bit later than normal on weekend days—can increase your risk of becoming overweight by 33 percent.
Messing with your natural sleep needs also stalls your immune system's production of infection-fighting proteins called cytokines, leaving you more susceptible to common colds and flus. And studies show severe sleep deficits can seriously compound the problem, upping your risk for chronic ailments like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
Pay Back Your Debt
Finally, some good news: As with normal jet lag, social jet lag is completely reversible. It just takes a bit more effort than the occasional 12-hour snooze spree, says Sapieha. First, forget about trying to erase your entire sleep debt by compensating for every moment you've missed. "You don't need to make up lost hours one-to-one," says Collop. "You need to make up some of those, and your body will help take care of the rest."
Yup, ever eager for slumber, your brain will help out by sleeping more efficiently—i.e., spending more time in restorative sleep stages—when you finally log consistent snooze time. Return the favor by spending nine to 10 hours in bed for up to four consecutive nights, says Collop. Start hitting the sheets early on a Friday or Saturday so you'll feel better by Monday morning and refreshed by midweek.
Easier said than done? If you've been living with social jet lag for a long time, you might need to nudge your whacked-out circadian rhythm in the right direction. Research shows spending 30 to 45 minutes outdoors soon after you wake up can help reset your sleep clock (leave your sunglasses inside; natural light needs to hit your peepers to work its magic). After a few days, this blast of morning UV light will help you feel sleepier at night—and brighter the following morning. (If you can't get outside, sub a sunlamp for the real thing.)
Next, make the most of the time you spend in bed by focusing on your sleep hygiene. No, that doesn't mean hyper-clean sheets (though, per the National Sleep Foundation, those don't hurt); it means practicing healthy sleep habits: Avoid caffeine after 2 p.m., keep your bedroom dark and cool (around 68Ã‚Â°F is ideal), and power down all electronic devices an hour before turning in. Don't review your finances, have charged conversations, or do anything active in the hour before bedtime—you'll only fire up your mind when it should be winding down, says Emad Alatassi, M.D., director of Beaumont Sleep Evaluation Services in St. Clair Shores, Michigan.
Once you've banished social jet lag from your life, don't let it creep back in. Aim for seven to eight hours of solid sleep every night, says Sapieha. Most important, try to always wake up and hit the hay at the same times each day. It might feel restrictive at first, but the health benefits are huge!
Rise and Actually Shine
How to blast through that bleary morning haze
Whether you've skimped on sleep or scored a solid eight hours, mornings can be, in a word, brutal. Blame your brain: everyone is hardwired to be either a night owl or an early bird—and only 15 percent of people are natural-born larks. Not part of that lucky minority? You can still beat biology.
After a long stretch in the sack without fluids, your body is thirsty, which can lead to brain fog, per a university of connecticut study. Right after your dreaded alarm goes off, gulp down a tall glass of H2O; it may help clear the cobwebs from your mind and improve your mood.
Next, give yourself a squeeze, literally. Research shows that self-administered acupressure pumps up mental alertness in the morning. Using a clockwise motion, massage the pressure point between your thumb and your forefinger on each hand for two minutes; then switch to a counterclockwise motion for two minutes.
Once you're out of bed, reach for some rosemary. A study in the International Journal of Neuroscience found that sniffing the herb promotes alertness.