A good night’s sleep or a delicious afternoon nap are two of life’s pleasures in my book. I also know I’m in a better mood with enough sleep, think more clearly, and feel happier. As my friend Maria says, “Sleeping is fun.” Sleeping, it turns out, is way more important than most people realize.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block recently came to speak at Natalie’s high school, Vistamar School, about the importance of sleep for optimum wellness and peak performance. Chancellor Block’s academic specialization is circadian biology, which deals with the functioning of 24-hour rhythms in higher organisms. The field of circadian biology includes behavioral research, as in the case of sleep patterns and problems, and cellular research, which is beginning to uncover some fascinating and unexpected answers to the underlying causes of illness.
Chancellor Block says, “The chronic lack of sleep could be the sleeper health issue in America. Sleep is often overlooked in favor of other important factors like diet and exercise. But the reality is adequate sleep is critical for wellness and success in school and on the job.”
In fact, we chose Vistamar School as Natalie’s high school not only for its integrated world-inspired curriculum, but its commitment to wellness. Knowing what we did about teen sleep patterns, we were further impressed that the school day started later than other schools: 8:25 four mornings a week, and 8:45 one morning a week. Quite simply, after our two-year home school adventure at “Applewood School” we were not about to discard the wisdom we had gained about the important link between health, success, and happiness. We had no interest in a high school that didn’t care how sleep-deprived and stressed out their students were as long as they were high-achievers.
It seemed absolutely fitting that Vistamar would invite Chancellor Block to be the speaker for the 2012 Buckheit Educational Leadership Series. (The Series honors Vistamar School’s founding Head of School Jim Buckheit, and explores issues in education and adolescent development). His engaging talk, which included fascinating study results and illustrations of brain structure, was accessible, engaging and enlightening.
So, this is what we knew about sleep before we heard Chancellor Block’s talk:
- Teens experience a biological shift that leads them to go to bed later, but they still need eight or nine hours of sleep. Schools that begin the school day a little later in the morning have seen an improvement in attentiveness and performance (especially during morning classes). One community has also recorded a dramatic decrease in auto accidents.
- For optimum sleep, televisions, telephones, and computers should not be in bedrooms.
- If we are rested, our risk of catching a cold drops significantly.
New things we learned about sleep from Chancellor Block:
- It’s best to stick to a consistent sleep schedule. For example, if you go to bed at 10 pm during the week, try to do the same on the weekend. It’s extremely hard on your body to shift schedules.
- If your sleep is cut short, it’s virtually impossible to make it up (i.e. weekend catch-ups)
- When travelling to a different time zone, eat your meals on the new time zone’s schedule as soon as possible (on the plane or even before the trip). Although exposure to daylight helps the brain attune itself to a new time zone, the digestion system depends on food cues.
- Elderly people who are having a difficult time sleeping through the night usually find their sleep improves if they can eat meals at regular times.
- Lack of sleep is damaging to the body, and the damage that’s done cannot be repaired. For example, it is beginning to appear that a connection exists between lack of sleep and rising rates of diabetes.
- A German study found that although most individuals’ sleep follows a common pattern, there are two smaller groups that don’t conform and have a difficult time functioning in a society that demands regularity. Larks, who get up very early and are tired by late afternoon, and Owls, who wake up at noon after going to bed early in the morning, are chronically sleep-deprived when expected to living on standard schedules. What are the health consequences?
- Information gained while one is rested and alert is retained and even further absorbed while sleeping. Information gained in a tired state is more easily forgotten.
If you’re interested in reading a little more about circadian rhythms, an easy-to-understand and interesting fact sheet can be found at this link for the National Institute of General Medical Sciences: