Faster, bigger, cooler, more popular. Modern life is relentless. As a result, we work more, sleep less and spend unhealthy amounts of time staring at screens of different sizes. Inevitably, this new reality comes with new health risks. Despite the fact, some experts claim it could be affecting two-thirds of the population, one of these risks is still relatively unknown. This, and how we fundamentally approach sleep, could be about to change.

Monday morning, at 7 am. You couldn’t sleep last night. Friday and Saturday’s late nights messed with your body clock so much that when you really needed rest, your body had other plans. Now, after 4 or 5 fitful hours, here you are. Sound familiar? You could be experiencing what is being called ‘social jetlag’.

What is social jetlag?

Social jetlag describes the habit of having two separate, distinct sleeping patterns. It is often the case that this disparity occurs between a weekday and weekend routine, although it can express itself in other scenarios. So why is this a problem? Your body has a smart built-in system called circadian rhythm, which tells you when you should sleep. Now, circadian rhythm is sensitive and if you develop a lifestyle that doesn’t sync with it, you’re playing fast and loose with your sleep health.

For many, this ‘double life’ results in physical symptoms that feel very much like jet lag. OK – think about this. On Friday you take a flight from London to Los Angeles. On Sunday you fly back again. How would that trip make you feel? Pretty lousy we’re guessing. However, social jetlag is more complicated than a simple shift from one timezone to another. One of the main differentiators between social and ‘normal’ jet lag is how we’re affected by light. When you arrived in LA the sun was coming up and setting at a different time. Being rather smart, your circadian rhythm recognizes this and resets itself. Social jetlag is subtly different in that it involves a change of routine but no change of physical location. The result is trauma and an upended sleep schedule.

So what are the consequences of social jetlag? We’d like to report that these are no more serious than bags under the eyes, and a few late arrivals at work. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. Some studies suggest social jetlag carries an increased risk of heart disease, obesity or weight gain. Also, the social jetlag sufferer can be at risk of mistaking other health issues for simple tiredness caused by the condition. In other words, those headaches or light-headed spells could be more easily explained than you thought – although we recommend consulting a physician if you’re in any doubt.

Reset your circadian rhythm

It would be wrong to assume that the obvious solution to social jetlag would be to have a nice long sleep. Social jetlag creates a negative spiral that needs to be broken and experts propose that you can’t get over it by planning to catch up on lost sleep by having a long lie at the weekend. Instead, they suggest that it’s much more effective to try to sleep a little earlier and get up only slightly later than usual. By doing so our lifestyle and circadian rhythm are slowly re-harmonised.

It’s also good to know that reducing the risk of social jetlag requires no more than some simple fine-tuning to your lifestyle. As mentioned above, the most obvious step we can take is to try and reduce any disparity between different sleep routines, if this is possible. What might be tougher is leaving smartphones, laptops and tablets outside the bedroom and avoiding using them for one hour before bedtime. It’s now accepted wisdom that the digital world and the world of sleep are uneasy bedfellows – if you excuse the pun.

The rise of social jetlag indicates that many of us have a body clock that is out of alignment, a problem known to negatively impact health and wellbeing. More tellingly, it raises the idea that we could be looking at sleep from the wrong perspective. For decades, it’s been accepted that it’s the number of hours we sleep that matters most. Social jetlag seems to be telling us that perhaps we were wrong and it’s more a case of when we sleep rather than how much that carries profound health and lifestyle implications.