The Sleep Chronicles Part I: The Importance of Sleep

John Sutherby and Lauren Yang

Sleep is a fascinating and crucial part of our daily lives. In fact, it is so important that going without it will literally drive us insane and eventually kill us. While sleep deprivation does not directly kill us, it is truly an epidemic that has horrible consequences. Teenagers are at a crucial stage of growth and development, a stage that sleep plays a huge part in. As an issue that has consequences ranging from acne to fatal auto accidents and severe mental illnesses, teen sleep deprivation should be taken very seriously.

One consequence of teen sleep deprivation is the increased risk of accidental or incidental injury and death. According to research done by the National Sleep Foundation, fatigue is one of the biggest causes of car crashes. At least 100,000 traffic accidents each year are caused by drowsiness. A North Carolina study found that 55% of fall-asleep crashes involved drivers under the age of 25.

Included in this group are juniors and seniors, many of which have their licenses and drive to school on little sleep. Junior and Senior year are two of the most important years of schooling as they include students taking the SATs and ACTs, writing college essays, and trying to boost their applications with extracurricular activities and AP courses. Students stay up late, sometimes getting only a couple hours of sleep a night trying to finish all of their work. It has been said that “[p]arents should not let sleep-deprived adolescents get behind the wheel anymore than they would if their kid had been drinking.” This issue is especially prevalent in the Radnor community because of Radnor High School’s open campus policy and because many seniors drive to school. These accidents, while are impossible to extinguish completely, can be drastically prevented if the community listens and understands the research behind the correlation of accidents and teen sleep deprivation.

In addition to car crashes, there is the concern of non-auto-related accidents. A student named Gabriel Levine had been sleeping for 3 to 4 hours a night, and one night he went to get a snack at 3 am, and instead of cutting the apple, he sliced through his thumb, straight to the bone.

Sleep deprivation in teens has also been directly linked to causing mental illnesses.  The National Sleep Foundation surveyed more than 1600 teenagers, and their data indicated that more than half showed signs of depression. 56% said that they had felt anxious and stressed out. Many said that all they could see was a hopeless future: “It really is a vicious cycle: sleep deprivation leads to stress in school, including daytime drowsiness and poor school performance; emotional and mental stress such as depression.” According to an article by psychology professor Matthew Feldner, losing sleep impairs functioning of the prefrontal cortex region of the brain. This region is associated with complex behavior and thinking, including regulating emotional experience. People who are sleep deprived therefore are more susceptible to elevated emotions and lack of control over them once triggered.

Furthermore, people who are sleep deprived have a tendency to lose focus and concentration; therefore, their problem solving skills are not as sharp. If a tough situation presents itself they are not able to think as quickly. Students at Radnor High School are under immense pressure to achieve at high levels and must be quick on their feet whether it’s in the classroom or on the field. If these teens are being sleep deprived and subsequently are without the necessary emotional capacity, it’s a recipe for disaster.

There have been signs of the relationship between obesity and sleep deprivation as well. Two sleep specialists at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center tested healthy men and women with the same body mass. Half of the tested slept the average recommended sleep time, and the other half slept 6.5 hours a night or less.  Glucose tolerance tests showed that the abnormal sleepers experienced hormonal changes that affected their future body weight and long term health. To help maintain their blood sugar levels, the people sleeping less had to produce 30% more insulin than the people who slept the average amount. Consequently, people who do not sleep enough often have unhealthy consumptions of food. This is due to chemical changes in the body, such as the amount of leptin and ghrelin. Leptin decreases hunger and ghrelin increases hunger. Lack of sleep tricks the brain into thinking that there is not enough energy and that you must eat. Therefore, the hormone leptin is suppressed while ghrelin skyrockets and makes you more hungry even when you have had enough to eat. This destructive cycle leads to an unhealthy lifestyle and contributes to the startling obesity statistics of America.

It has also been proven that there is a correlation between memory and learning ability and sleep. There are three types of memory functions: acquisition, or the introduction of new information; consolidation, or the process of retaining the information; and recall, or the ability to apply or access the information. The first kind of memory is declarative memory, which is factual information (these usually begin in “what”), such as what you had for breakfast this morning. Scientists have discovered that REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the dream stage, has involvement with emotional and complex pieces of declarative memory but not always with information that is simple. Since declarative information is mainly memorization, Slow Wave Sleep (SWS) helps by processing the newly acquired information.

Another type of memory is procedural memory, which pertains to how to do things–the application of memories. REM sleep impacts the consolidation of procedural memory. Motor learning, the capability to respond, is impacted by the earlier and lighter stages of sleep while other types of visual learning depend on the amount of deep SWS sleep and REM sleep. Lack of sleep leads to the overworking of neurons in our brains, causing them to lose functions, such as being able to coordinate information and to apply our memories. Judgement also becomes impaired because we lose the ability to fully and thoroughly assess the situation, plan accordingly, and choose what is considered to be the right option.

The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends a minimum of 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night, so why is it that the AAP recorded that “87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights[?]”  In the AAP’s opinion, it is linked to schools starting too early. The AAP recommends that high schools start no earlier than 8:30. This was identified to be the earliest healthy start time partly because as teens progress through puberty, their internal clock, or circadian rhythm, shifts back about two hours, causing many of them to have trouble falling asleep before 11:00. 40% of high schools in the US are fighting a losing battle with biology by starting too early.

Research upon research has been done to support the notion that teen sleep deprivation comes with consequences. While these consequences cannot be eliminated, they can be helped if students get more and higher quality sleep. The Radnor community faces some big decisions in a couple of months. With all the studies and statistics backing the consequence claims, we must ask ourselves if our students should be subjected to them. Shifting the start times will require a great amount of work, but isn’t that a fair trade for lower risks of depression, obesity and car accidents?