Social Jet Lag (Forced Synchronization) Can Be A Real Drag

Get the jet-lagged, crummy feeling of an intercontinental airplane ride with none of the excitement and none of the bills—suffer from social jet lag!

You can go far to the south or north, all the way to a different country, even another continent. Physically, you’ll feel fine. Your physical location won’t disrupt your circadian rhythm.

Going far to the east or west, however, is a different story. You’ll experience something called “jet lag” unless you take special steps to overcome it. The further east or west you go, the greater the toll your location will exact on your body.

Daylight Savings Time is another common cause of this feeling.

What is ‘jet lag?’

Jet lag is the disruption of your circadian rhythm. It’s most commonly associated with flying across time zones, hence the use of the word “jet.” The circadian rhythm is your body’s natural way of telling you when it’s time to wake up and go to sleep. You can be the calmest, most tranquil, and most tired person in a hundred miles and if your circadian rhythm is out of whack you’re going to have trouble sleeping.

So then what is ‘social jet lag?’

It’s subtle and creeps by unnoticed.

It’s more common to notice the effects of jet lag when you’re traveling. That’s how you’re going to hear about jet lag frequently. Say you’re used to being in Eastern Standard Time in New York, and you board a plane for Los Angeles in Newark, New Jersey (EWR). When you land, it’s going to be three hours earlier. Your body will think it’s three hours later. You’ll get more tired, faster, than the Angelinos around you.

An Angelino will similarly be out of whack when he or she goes out among New Yorkers in the Big Apple, at least until he or she has time to adjust.

With 24-hour electric lighting and schedules that don’t accommodate chronotypes (that’s a person’s predisposition to either be a morning person or night person), someone can find themselves out-of-whack with everyone around them without traveling anywhere.

School starts at a certain time. Sports on TV and everyone in your household’s schedule can prevent you from getting enough sleep at a certain time. Working for another company in another time zone can cause it. Anything that, for one reason or another, causes you to live like you’re in a different time zone from where you are can cause social jet lag.

You’re influenced by natural bedtimes cues and obligated to do things at certain times. It causes conflict. Researchers call this phenomenon “forced synchronization.” Your ancestors living 200 years ago wouldn’t experience this. You do.

Simply put, you get to bed late because of choice or because you have to and then get up too early, again, because you have to.

Just as with the jet lag related to traveling, social jet lag is going to leave you tired, more prone to making mental mistakes, and irritable. It’s a terrible combination.

Social jet lag is more common than regular jet lag because it doesn’t involve travelling.

Where you live can contribute to social jet lag

A 2019 study from the University of Pittsburgh showed an employed adult living in the western part of their time zone got less sleep one who lived in the eastern part, an average of 19 minutes per day. This is presumed to be the result of the sun setting at a different time from one side of the time zone as compared to the other. When the sun sets, it provides a natural cue to the body to start producing melatonin which triggers feelings of tiredness.

The study didn’t include retirees. They have more freedom to go to bed when they want.

Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired by Till Roenneberg (affiliate link)

It doesn’t mean everyone living in a county on the western extreme of their time zone doesn’t sleep enough. However, it does make it more likely that someone would sleep less than six hours a night. That means, too, that they’d be more likely to suffer a cumulative sleep deficit. This would affect eating and hormone production.

Though it was released in 2019, before the coronavirus outbreak, there’s no reason working from home would have changed the results of the study. Any job with a start time would be impacted by forced synchronization to some degree by having a certain start time and fixed deadlines.

These start times aren’t responsive to the time the sun rises. People are.

How to resist social jet lag

Take a look at your schedule

Is there a way to change it so you can get eight hours of sleep per night? Most adults require at least seven hours of sleep but you can’t plan on dropping off to sleep immediately. You need to allow yourself a little leeway. You need to plan to have the need to wind down. For best results, you need to plan on at least eight hours. Fill the remaining minutes with reading for relaxation, mediation, prayer or doing whatever you do to wind down.

Go outside during the day

Some days it’s going to be easier than others. Some days the weather is terrible. It’s very cold or very hot. The goal, when it comes to resisting social jet lag, is to be exposed to light from the sun. On those days when it’s untenable to go outdoors, open the blinds.

Our skin produces Vitamin D when we’re exposed to the sun. A number of different studies have shown how people are chronically short of this vitamin. That’s a reflection of how we live our lives. You may want to take a supplement at least a little on those days where you know you don’t go outdoors much. A lack of Vitamin D affects sleep.

Getting outdoors during the day not only helps you sleep by allowing your brain to adjust its wake/rest cycle but it also helps with making enough Vitamin D.


In general, exercise is important because it helps the body work better. When it comes to social jet lag, it’s doubly true. Exercising outdoors can be doubly helpful in kicking social jet lag.

Watch alcohol and caffeine consumption

Alcohol before bed doesn’t allow for rest that fully recharges and refreshes even if you don’t drink to the point of puking. Too much coffee has the same effect.

Check your exposure to blue light

Don’t make the mistake of exposing your eyes to blue light before bed. Use a setting on the phone or some kind of filter.

Don’t consume certain foods close to bedtime

You don’t want to eat a heavy meal before going to bed. Save the jumbo cheeseburger or large pizza for lunch if you have to have it.

Accept that you need sleep

A lot of this is common sense once you accept that you need a certain amount of sleep every day. When you’re getting back on track, get up a little earlier than you would otherwise or go to sleep a little later if you don’t want to wake up so early. Make it part of your calculation as to when you go to bed.

Further reading:

For when you do travel, find a small bottle.

Also on the blog:

James Cobb, RN, MSN, is an emergency department nurse and the founder of the Dream Recovery System. His goal is to provide his readers with simple, actionable ways to improve their health and maximize their quality of life. 

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