Dr. Kahn: Avoiding social jetlag

- In this Internet era, you can outsource almost every activity to the web - whether it's banking, grocery shopping or even doctor visits via telemedicine. However, as much as digital technology has replaced many services previously done manually, there are some activities I cannot ever see being replaced by a computer. There are just some areas you can't "hack."

Most importantly: sleep.

From a health perspective, sleep remains a vital primitive need that we share with all creatures. It's an opportunity to repair damage done during the day and begin each day with a fresh supply of DNA, mitochondria, antioxidants, and detoxification pathways.

If you're cutting corners on pillow time, you're unlikely to reach your goal of a cleaner, leaner body - no matter how many juice cleanses you do.

Many studies in large populations of adults have identified seven hours of sleep to be a health goal as important as nutrition, fitness, and stress management. Indeed, sleep is the foundation for success for those other three pillars of wellness.

Now, new research shows that maintaining a regular sleep schedule may be even more important than previously appreciated. In fact, catching up on sleep on the weekends, as many of us tend to do, may be of no advantage at all.

The scientists studied over 400 healthy adults and had them wear a digital device to track sleep times. They identified the midpoint of their sleep cycle during work days and off days. Going to bed late and sleeping in on some days, like during the weekend, or what's called "social jetlag," would shift the midpoint to later in the night.

So what were the consequences of moving that midpoint to later than most other days? After adjusting for many variables, the researchers found that shifting sleep times resulted in:
1. A lower HDL (protective) cholesterol level
2. A higher fasting insulin level
3. A higher triglyceride level (another health bummer)
4. A higher degree of body fat (no explanation needed here)

This new understanding of sleep has important consequences. There are almost 30 million Americans struggling with diabetes mellitus and over one-third of the population is obese. And it's been previously identified that major changes in sleep patterns for shift workers (like nurses and firefighters) increase the risk of cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

The findings shown here - that even small variations in sleep patterns can impact measures of wellness in otherwise healthy people - has large implications for how much we can really control our sleep and social lives without doing harm.

Recently, the belief that our ancestors routinely went to bed at dusk and awoke at dawn has been challenged. But there is no doubt that, in our modern world, we have many more opportunities to vary our sleep because of work and social calendars.

The bottom line: Social jetlag, and the health consequences that result from varying your sleep habits, now joins excessive sitting and other aspects of modern life as a call to retain some primitive habits.
We should all aim for a "caveman or cavewoman-like" regular seven square hours of restorative sleep.

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