Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Internal Time by Till Roenneberg

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Social jet lag is a thing (and I definitely have it)

Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You're So Tired by Till Roenneberg, an  esteemed researcher on the science of sleep, profiles 24 (irony intended) insights into our internal clocks, how they are aligned to external factors (like the daily cycles of light and dark) and what it means for us as individuals and as a society when they are out of synch. 

And they are always out of synch.

Turns out our chronotypes are predetermined by genetics and a handful of other factors, and we can’t simply choose when we want our bodies and brains to be functionally optimally—some of us are night owls, some of us are early birds and most of us are in the middle somewhere. But the important part is that it’s not a choice. It’s determined by biology. And it’s constantly changing as we age.

But society doesn’t actually care that we are constantly falling farther and farther away from optimal alignment. Schools, work and social activities are based on external time. And so we dig ourselves ever deeper into a chronic sleep deficit.

The ramifications of not aligning personal chronotypes to waking and sleeping cycles can have devastating affects on personal health (possibly causing or contributing to cancer, among other chronic diseases), relationships (a lack of understanding about internal clocks can ruin partnerships), careers (night shifts are literally suicidal) and the ability to learn (most children’s brains are simply not ready to learn early in the morning).

Sleep, or it’s absence, is at the heart of so many fundamental human health and wellness issues. The book places into stark relief one of the biggest challenges we face in the modern world: living in a twilight world of artificial light, using clocks to wake up well before our bodies want us to in order to adhere to schedules that are literally killing us, and then forcing ourselves to stay up later than optimal to cram in a few hours to ourselves. It’s a blueprint for illness, wasted effort and squandered productivity and creativity.

This ability to torture ourselves on the wheel of time is also, the author  argues, one reason our species was so successful—we were able to occupy an evolutionary niche no other animal had success with: time.

But it comes at a great cost.

“One of the most blatant assaults on the body-clock in modern society is shift work…Several decades of epidemiological research have clearly shown that shift workers develop more health problems than day workers. These include sleep problems, depression, cardiovascular pathologies, digestive track issues, diabetes and other metabolic diseases, and obesity. Health risks related to shift work even include several types of cancer. As a consequence, the World Health Organization has recently classified ‘shift work that involves circadian disruption’ as a potential cause of cancer.”

Shift work is the extreme example of course, but almost all of us who work or attend school live in the middle of a circadian disruption of greater or lesser severity, hence the social jet lag. The disruptions start to add up in the same way flying across time zones accumulates. Eventually, there will be a reckoning. Like chronic exhaustion and lowered mental faculties.

But who will ever take the time to evaluate the way external time unfairly governs a sea of individuals, each with a specifically, and differently, tuned internal clock?

After reading this book, I’ve never more appreciated a good night’s sleep. Also, per the author, we should all get outside more into the natural light, eat better and add more motion to our lives. And, speaking personally, it probably wouldn’t hurt to stop shining artificial light directly into my eyes long past dark, courtesy of my various personal electronic devices.

This is a fascinating, charming and eye-opening book about the sleepless menace lurking just below the surface of modern life.