Let’s talk about something you probably don’t miss these days: jetlag.
Even if you have superhuman powers that grant you the ability to sleep on airplanes, you’re still likely to end up with severe jetlag if you cross time zones.
Why am I asking you to read about jetlag during a pandemic?
Because jetlag-like symptoms are not limited to long airplane flights.
You may be experiencing jetlag-like symptoms lately—not from air travel, but from being indoors so much of the time.
So, let’s look at what exactly is going in our brains to mess up our sleep schedules—and what we can do about it.
How Your Biological Clock Works
Your brain has a control center that’s dedicated to keeping track of what time of day it is. This control center—also known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus—analyzes how much light is hitting your eyes, and how much food you’re eating, for example. Based on this information, your brain sends signals to the rest of your organs, telling them what to do. At night, your brain typically tells most of your organs to slow down their functioning—and to lower your body temperature. In contrast, during the day, your brain tells your organs to speed up their functioning, increasing your heartrate and raising your temperature.
But there’s one important catch: your body must get certain signals for this night/day distinction to happen. For example, daylight hitting the back of your eyeballs (your retinas) triggers awake-mode, and the lack of light reaching your eyes leads to sleep-mode. This system is referred to as your Circadian rhythm, and it’s way more flexible than you may think.
When Circadian Rhythms Mess with You
Circadian rhythms are regulated by genetics, and they’ve been part of mammals’ physiology for as long as the Earth has been spinning. That said, our Circadian rhythms can mess with us. Jetlag is a great example: your jetlagged brain receives mixed signals about what to tell the rest of your body, and the rest of your body responds with confusion: your adrenal glands, figuring that it’s time to wake up, start pumping out stress hormones like cortisol. At the same time, your brain has stopped producing melatonin—the stuff that’s in sleeping pills—making it even harder for you to sleep after an exhausting trip.
Predictably, when we’re living indoors 23 hours a day, our brains get confused—and the symptoms can resemble jetlag. For example, when we’re awake until four a.m., basking in the blue light of a computer screen, our brains think it still isn’t time to hit the hay. And isn’t this exactly what so many of us are doing, hunkering down indoors, getting less natural light during the day?
Dealing with Your Circadian Rhythm
Is there anything we can do to change this system? A rigid system that has been encoded in our DNA for hundreds of millions of years?
Despite the apparent rigidity of Circadian rhythms, they’re still flexible enough to be set right over the course of a few days. And if you’re stuck inside, you have two options: reset or adjust.
The first option, resetting your Circadian rhythm, involves setting a rigid schedule in which you wake up in the morning before dawn and blast your face with artificial UV light for a few hours until the sun finally rises. Make sure you eat at “regular” times—so don’t skip breakfast and all that. Then, a few hours before bedtime, forget about your phone and your computer. If that’s unavoidable, install a program that filters out the blue light from your screen. (Alternatively, you can buy glasses that do this for you when you wear them. Since we’re not sponsored by any of these people, I trust you can find your own on the internet.) If you’ve heard all this before, I’m sorry for repeating it; the following suggestion involves considerably less conformity and waking up early.
So, the other option, adjusting, is about adjusting your sleep schedule to Central Pandemic Time. To adjust, simply invest in a set of blackout curtains for your bedroom and some nice earplugs. A white-noise machine (Sound Screen) is a bonus—or a necessity, if your neighbors are the kind that like to renovate their entire apartment at 9 a.m. With this light- and sound-blocking set-up, you’ll be able to sleep and wake up whenever the hell you feel like it. And if you time it right, you’ll have breakfast at sunset and your midnight snack while watching a beautiful sunrise. If you’re in a rainy country (the Netherlands) like I am, everything in between—the weather, seen in daylight—is usually not worth being awake for anyway.
What are the perks of adjusting to Central Pandemic Time, you may wonder? You’ll get work done, undisturbed, as long as you’re awake, because you’re the only one awake during those hours. The night is beautiful, and it is yours. You own it, and it’s your time to shine. You’ll go on walks when nobody else can breathe on you. Meditate in complete silence without the background noise of subways and sanding machines.
So, have fun with your new sleep schedule, and don’t let anyone tell you they know better, because whatever works for you, just works! I did this for a few months, and I recommend it to anyone who’ll listen.
If you’d like to learn more about circadian rhythms, check out this paper.
Dickmeis T, Weger BD, Weger M. 2013:
The circadian clock and glucocorticoids – Interactions across many time scales.
If you don’t have access, or can’t find it, feel free to send me an email.