We sleep for a third of our lives, around 25 years of our life, there is no activity that we will do more while alive. So, for something that takes up a very great proportion of our lives, why do we know so little about it?
Even though there is so much research in the area, there is limited understanding of why our brains need to sleep for example, with some scientists speculating that it’s for removing toxins in the brain, and others claiming that it helps with memory storage.
But back to what we do know; sleep is a crucial part of our being, sleep for our body is a requirement, and it is said that without sleep, you could die in as little as 2-3 weeks, but there is a very slim chance of you killing yourself accidentally while trying to cram in all that last-minute revision, because your body will fall asleep, whether you like it or not and it is almost impossible to fight this urge. For this reason, sleep deprivation was used as a form of torture throughout history, and it is still considered to be highly unethical to deprive someone of sleep.
But as you approach that ‘danger point’ of nearly dying, what will your body experience? Well, after just one or two days of sleep deprivations, subjects reported dulled down emotions (i.e. not smiling, or not even recognising when someone is smiling at you) and having a neutral face. After a period of a week, although not formally tested, people have been said to experience ‘hallucinations’, and at this stage of sleep deprivation, you will fall into ‘microsleeps’ of around 30 seconds. In these ‘microsleeps’, you fall asleep, but the interesting part is that you do it with your eyes open and you are blind.
So obviously sleep is so important to us, that we would literally go crazy without it. So, what does it do in us that is so important? To understand this, we first must understand that there are 4 stages of sleep, that form a cycle, and there are around 5 or more repeats of this cycle every night. The 4 stages include the ‘introduction’, where your muscles start to relax and your eyes gradually start to get heavier and struggle to stay open, then there is the ‘beginning’ stage which is a light and dreamless sleep, this is then followed by the third stage, slow wave sleep where most of the “healing” effects are said to happen and finally there is Deep sleep, where you experience REM (rapid eye movement), and where you would dream. These 4 stages can be separated into two sections, Rapid eye movement sleep (REM)and non-REM (nREM). As mentioned before, most of the healing occurs in nREM, and not that much in REM. Interestingly, when subjects were selectively deprived of REM, they experienced very little side effects, even though up to a week later.
But what has this all got to do with why school should start at 10 o’clock? Well, as you’ve probably guessed, it’s to do with sleep, and specifically how teenagers require more sleep in the mornings to ‘function optimally’. Teenagers are the biggest sufferers of sleep deprivation, with around 70% of teens facing the problem. This causes problems and is linked to an increase in obesity, depression, suicidal thoughts and risk taking. Most people need to rely on an alarm to wake themselves up in the morning, this means that they are forcing themselves to wake up, i.e. their body has not finished sleeping and ‘healing’. But why do teenagers suffer from sleep problems greatly?
“Sleep deprivation is linked to an increase in obesity, depression, suicidal thoughts and risk taking.”
In my opinion, there are two reasons, one that there is a much bigger usage, and even reliance on electronic devices, and the problem with them, especially late at night is that screens are mainly short wavelength enriched, meaning that they contain mainly short waves, such as blue light. Blue light delays the production of the sleep inducing melatonin. So, you don’t even feel tired, and then when you actually want to fall asleep, as you don’t have the hormone present, and it will take quite a lot of time for you to actually fall asleep, as hormones are slow acting messengers, and will take time for the hormone to be released and reach the target cells. The second reason, is that adolescents generally release the hormone melatonin later at night, so they find it harder to sleep, and once they do sleep, they require the 9 hours to sleep. So, if they fall asleep at 12 at night, to get the best amount of sleep for them, they would have to wake up at 9 In the morning, so therefore school should start at 10 to 11am.
Because teenagers release the hormone at later times at night, it means that they have a different circadian rhythm (internal body clock), and they will experience a similar feeling to somebody who is jetlagged permanently, and although when you are jetlagged, it does not take long to adapt to the new time zone, but for teenagers, it is a more permanent effect, that is harder to change. So if we can’t adapt ourselves to the school times, the school times really should adapt to us.
There have been numerous studies to show that when teenagers are rested, they have increased cognition and brain power, they are also more focused in day to day tasks and should hopefully then improve in study areas and get better exam grades. The policy of later school starting days has been implemented in schools around the country already in a study of 100 schools by oxford university.
I think most schools should follow the other schools, and change the school times in at least the upper school. There are also no real negatives to school finishing 2 or three hours later than usual. For example, in Asian schools, where there is overcrowding, there are morning and evening schools (7am to 1 and 1 to 7pm), and there is a general trend that the evening school performs better academically. But if you thought that having 6 hours of school was enough, try living in some Asian countries such as South Korea, where pupils experience 12 hour studying days due to high competition, and the social stigma around getting bad grades, or live in shanghai where pupils on average get 15 hours of homework a week, compared to the 4.9-hour average for Europe.
In conclusion, although sleep deprivation is a great issue that is affecting the lives and well-being of students, maybe it is just a phase that you must get through, just like the millions of students that have done it before you. I mean, they’ve turned out all right, haven’t they?