That Monday Morning Exhaustion Has A Name: Social Jet Lag
When someone travels across the world, they expect fatigue and grogginess to follow. But what about when they just head across town for the weekend? According to a phenomenon called social jet lag, people can experience jet lag features even if they're not skipping time zones. Here's what to know about this sleep misalignment and how to manage it.
What causes social jet lag?
The term "social jet lag" was coined and defined by a German researcher named Till Roenneberg, Ph.D., in 2006. At the time, Roenneberg, a sleep researcher and chronobiologist who studies biological rhythms, was interested in how different our sleep schedules tended to be on the weekends.
"We saw people leading different lives on weekends and workdays," he says on a call with mbg. On weekends, many people slept at times that differed greatly from those during the workweek, as if “they were flying from Europe to the States on Friday evening and flying back to Europe from the States on Monday morning. That's where the term 'social jet lag' came from."
You might be thinking, why does it matter if you go to bed later (and wake up later) on weekends—as long as you're still getting the same amount of sleep? Roenneberg has found that even if people clock their eight hours of on the weekends, social jet lag still has potential health consequences because of the way it puts them out of sync with their circadian rhythms.
These biological clocks dictate the time window when each one of us naturally wants to spend asleep and awake. Someone with an early rhythm—or chronotype—is known as an early bird or lark, while someone with a late chronotype is more of a night owl. Where we fall on this spectrum is the result of our genetics, age (most people have the latest chronotype during adolescence, and it gradually gets earlier from there), and light conditions, Roenneberg explains.
When we travel across time zones, those lighting conditions change dramatically, and our clocks need a few days to catch up. "But unlike travel jet lag, social jet lag doesn't stop," Roenneberg says. "It's chronic."
You can think of social jet lag as the gap between when our bodies naturally want to sleep and when our social schedules allow us to sleep. If you're someone who needs to set an alarm every morning of the workweek and are exhausted come Fridays, you already know what this gap feels like. You're constantly awake during times when your body wants you to be asleep—and have the caffeine dependency to prove it. Switching your sleep schedule on the weekends will only confuse your circadian rhythm more, making it harder to return to your alarm clock on Monday morning.
Roenneberg explains that the later your chronotype, the more likely you are to suffer from social jet lag since many workplaces and schools start early in the morning, and we are generally told that it's important to wake up early to get a head start on the day. "The later you are, the more likely it is that the social times are forcing you to live against your body clock," he says.
Since it was first coined in 2006, social jet lag has appeared in over 200 academic papers1. "It's a concept that has conquered the world unexpectedly," Roenneberg laughs. Marc Wittmann, Ph.D., a time perception researcher who has worked alongside Roenneberg, has a guess as to why it's become so popular: "It's because we all deal with it."
Signs of social jet lag.
While social jet lag is not a medical diagnosis, Roenneberg says that there are many potential consequences of living against your internal clock. In one survey of over 500 people, those who had late chronotypes and were more prone to social jet lag also tended to be more likely to consume stimulants (caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol2) and report a worse mood during the day. Separate research has found that social jet lag might also get in the way of maintaining a healthy weight3.
What to do about it.
Ultimately, the only way to "cure" social jet lag is to ditch your alarm clock, sleep when you're tired, wake up when you're rested, and keep up with the same sleep schedule day after day, even on weekends. For most of us, it's just not feasible.
But these tips can help ease some of the impacts of social jet lag so you don't wake up on Monday morning feeling like you just took a trans-Atlantic flight.
See what time you wake up without an alarm.
Seeing what time you wake up without an alarm can give you a sense of your ideal sleep window. Once you know when your circadian rhythm wants you to sleep, you can start to prioritize that window as much as possible.
Adjust your weekend schedule.
Your rhythm appreciates consistency, so skipping the occasional late night will help you fall asleep easier and wake up more refreshed. Instead of shifting your sleep schedule by three hours on Fridays and Saturdays, for example, Shelby Harris, PsyD, DBSM, author of The Women's Guide to Overcoming Insomnia, recommends keeping it to 1.5 hours.
If you wake up tired on the weekend and want to take a nap, she says that taking a shorter one earlier in the day, before 2 p.m., might help make Mondays a little more bearable. "It's like a snack on sleep but it's not multiple hours that will negatively impact your night," she tells mbg.
Practice good sleep hygiene.
While it's not possible to change your chronotype to avoid social jet lag altogether, Wittman says that good sleep hygiene can help you adapt to it a little better.
That means laying off the booze, caffeine, and late-night snacks and replacing them with daily movement, a relaxing sleep ritual, a consistent bedtime, and maybe a sleep supplement.*
Let there be light.
Light and sleep go hand in hand. Exposing yourself to plenty of bright natural light during the day and minimizing light exposure at night will help support a healthier circadian rhythm and healthier sleep in turn.
Push for more flexible hours at work and school.
To account for all the different chronotypes out there, Roenneberg says he always encourages employers and schools to allow employees and students to set their own hours that sync up with their natural sleep-wake cycle. Not only can this improve productivity and work ethic, but it will reduce the amount of sleep catch-up we need to do on the weekends.
The more we learn about the circadian rhythm and social jet lag, the more Wittman expects that this research will lead to real changes in our everyday lives.
The bottom line.
While spending the weekend catching up with friends until the wee hours is nourishing for the soul, it's not so great for our sleep, according to a growing body of research. Thankfully, there are a few ways to minimize your social jet lag without totally ruining your social life.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.