Cognitive impairment, hunger, vision problems, a weak immune system. These are just some of the telltale signs that you may be experiencing sleep deprivation. Waking up and feeling well-rested is important, and sleep habits have the potential to affect quality of life in a big way. Lack of sleep not only impinges on your health and wellbeing, but it can also tangibly affect your performance at school or work.
All of this is being put to the test, literally, in a ground-breaking four-year study being conducted by Oxford University’s Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute. More than 30 000 secondary school students from over 100 institutions across the U.K. are taking part in an attempt to establish whether the scientific evidence will justify a 10am start to the school day. The results of the experiment are expected to be published in 2018.
There is already reason to believe the findings will leave students sleeping in across the nation. According to a 2009 pilot study at Monkseaton High School in North Tyneside, conducted by then teacher Paul Kelley (now an Honorary Clinical Research Associate’ at SCNI) there is a fundamental mismatch between the start times of school and work and the natural body clock of humans, particularly older children and teenagers.
To aid in the understanding of this, there are two main biological processes that help to regulate this behaviour:
1) The “Sleep / Wake Homeostasis”
The sleep/wake homeostasis is one system that acts as a reminder for the need to sleep. This property essentially keeps track of the time that you have been awake, and after a certain point, you will naturally feel the urge to get some sleep so that you can fulfill your body’s need to balance the diurnal and nocturnal cycles. The sleep/wake homeostasis basically dictates how much sleep we need to compensate for the hours spent being awake during the day.
2) The Circadian Rhythm
The second process that our bodies naturally implement to regulate sleep is called the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm’s primary function is to control the timing of alertness and sleepiness during the day. This “body clock” can be affected by an individual’s environment, especially when it comes to the presence or lack of light, as well as temperature. For instance, your body will respond to the presence of light as a cue to stay awake, whereas being placed in a situation of darkness would urge the body to get some much needed shuteye.
Dr Russell Foster, another neuroscientist at the Institute, says that teenagers have a delayed circadian rhythm compared to adults, and that this should provide reason to adjust the start times of schools. He says:
“Recent advances in our understanding of the neuroscience of sleep has shown that the body clock (of) teenagers is delayed.”
Indeed, Kelley’s research at Monkseaton suggests that the average 10-year-old is not prepared to begin schoolwork before 8:30am. He witnessed the benefits first hand when, after switching the start of the school day from 8:30am to 10am, he observed a 19% increase in the number of top grades. Extrapolating this, the recommended start time for high school students is 10am, and for students at the post-secondary level it’s even later, at 11am. But it’s not just kids and young adults who could benefit.
Corporate Fatigue — Do Longer Hours Actually Hurt Productivity?
Kelley’s research suggests that the circadian rhythm in all adults younger than 55 is inherently in conflict with the expectations of a 9-to-5 work day. This can create detrimental consequences for productivity, mood, and mental health.
In the corporate world, Dr. Kelley believes that employers should follow suit by delaying the start of the work day to 10am. This change will ultimately lead to higher employee productivity, as well as simultaneously reducing the number of health risks that chronic sleep fatigue has on physical and mental wellbeing.
“Staff should start at 10am,” Dr Kelley asserted. “You don’t get back to (the 9am) starting point till 55. Staff are usually sleep-deprived. We’ve got a sleep-deprived society.”
In the U.K., schools are able to independently select the start and end times of the school day. The Department of Education is hopeful that the outcomes of the study will be used by educators to plan for future curriculums according to student needs.
Sleep deprivation is an increasingly pervasive problem that plagues many of us. From health issues to lowered productivity, the science is begging for society to change.
To that I say, let’s put an end to the sleep crisis, one alarm clock at a time.