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‘Social jetlag’ sleep loss can cause unhealthy drinking, eating habits

Carolyn Morris
Shine On
May 10, 2012

Do you feel like your alarm clock goes off a little too early? Well, it might just be waking you up in the middle of your biological night.

According to a German sleep expert, a huge number of people suffer from "social jetlag" — a disconnect between our body clocks and our social clocks. And this making us drink more alcohol and coffee, smoke more and become obese.

"Waking up with an alarm clock is a relatively new facet of our lives," says Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at the University of Munich. His latest research, linking "social jetlag" with obesity is published in the most recent issue of the journal Current Biology.

"It simply means that we haven't slept enough and this is the reason we are chronically tired."

Also see: Is the lunch break becoming obsolete?

Roenneberg and his team used an internet-based questionnaire to analyze the sleep patterns of over 65,000 participants. They found that sleep duration has been decreasing, mostly due to a lack of sleep throughout the work week.

While most working participants would coax themselves out of bed during the week with an alarm, they let themselves catch up on sleep on the weekend.

"The difference in sleep timing between work and free days resembles the situation of traveling across several time zones to the West on Friday evenings and ''flying'' back on Monday mornings," explains Roenneberg.

A third of participants in his study reported having two or more hours of social jetlag, and 69 per cent at least one hour. While regular jetlag is transient, lasting until we get re-adjusted to our local time zone, social jetlag is a chronic condition.

And it is bad for our health.

Also see: Yogurt makes male mice more fertile — could it be true for humans?

In Canada, a group of medical professionals are becoming increasingly concerned about the implications of sleep deprivation.

"Our lifestyle is busy and we don't tend to prioritize sleep," says Reut Gruber, director of the attention, behaviour and sleep lab at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal. "It's one of things we just ignore, and it's very easy for it to accumulate."

She says that 25 per cent of adults and up to 80 per cent of adolescents are sleep deprived.

As chair of the pediatric sleep interest group Canadian Sleep Society, she brings other sleep experts together to build strategies on making us all get more sleep. She'd like to see fewer activities scheduled for kids late on schoolnights, for example.

"It has to do with choices we make on a daily basis. It's just like bad food choices," she says.

"There is robust evidence showing that sleep deprivation severely impairs cognition, attention, emotional regulation, physical health, the immune system, weight regulation, and more."

So, the next time you sleep through your alarm, just tell yourself it's good for your health.

Watch the video below about a sleep experiment where sleep deprivation occurred in 21 volunteers.

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