Part II: Women and Sleep Research
Mary Carskadon, Amy Wolfson, Judith Owens, Kyla Wahlstrom, Erin O’Brien, Jodi Mindell, Patricia Kubow, Amy Bemis, Heather Noland, Stephanie Crowley, Christine Acebo…
These were just a few names I ran across as I researched sleep and school start times. As mentioned in Part I of this series, women across America, including myself, have become unplanned advocates in seeking later and healthier school start times for adolescents.
When I explored the research, I quickly discovered that women have also played a prominent role in the research behind the advocacy. Mary Carskadon, for example, was instrumental in identifying what scientists now call the ‘phase delay’ of sleep. The ‘phase delay’ is a phenomenon of puberty in which adolescents are suddenly bio-chemically wired to stay up later and sleep later. Through changes in when they released melatonin and through other changes in sleep drive and circadian rhythm, adolescents typically fall asleep best around 11pm. This pubertal shift has also been identified in other animals.
When puberty is done, approximately age 24 for humans, a more ‘regular’ sleep pattern is restored. The discovery of the ‘phase delay’ raised significant concerns about the American pattern of gradually moving middle and high school start times earlier and earlier in the last few decades to accommodate adult and school bus schedules.
Adolescents require 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep. If they can’t fall asleep before 11pm, the numbers don’t add up to a healthy sum since they must wake at 5 or 6am to catch an early bus.
We humans have notoriously misunderstood and misaligned sleep. We have underestimated the role sleep plays in physical and cognitive development and healing, and we are now facing the consequences. Research in the last few decades, much of it conducted by the aforementioned women, has shown that chronic sleep deprivation (even getting one hour less per night than we should) is correlated with increased insulin resistance, obesity, compromised immune functioning, increased auto accidents, less impulse control, substance abuse, depression, and more.
Many of these same researchers then started speaking up on school start times with noticeable results. In 1993, the Minnesota Medical Association issued a public resolution encouraging the elimination of early school start times. In 1998, US Representative Zoe Lofgren introduced the Zzz’s to A’s Act that would have allowed for grants to schools to start after 9am – an act that never made it out of subcommittee. In 2000, the National Sleep Foundation issued a report on adolescent sleep patterns with a review of the research available at that time.
…we need even more women and men involved in this issue
However, the most activity has happened just in the last few years with various state chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsing later school start times and the Centers for Disease Control issuing a call for action comparing the need to educate the public on sleep with the tobacco education campaign. Even the US Secretary of Education endorsed later school start times, calling it a ‘common sense’ move, but unfortunately, the top educator in the nation doesn’t have control over local school schedules – which is why we need even more women and men involved in this issue. Regardless of how many national experts and health groups ask for change, the decision is ultimately up to our local communities, school boards, and superintendents.
My goal has been to educate colleagues and parents. I have presented at state and national conferences and local PTA meetings and created an open access PowerPoint on the topic. I was cited in an editorial in the British journal Education and Health: “Sleepless In America: School Start Times” and was asked to join the Ohio Adolescent Health Partnership to chair the committee on sleep – all of which stemmed from my father sending me the book “Nurture Shock”. None of the activities are effective, however, if change doesn’t actually occur.
I encourage American Woman readers to start looking first at your own sleep to see if changes need to be made. Are you getting 7-9 hours each night? If not, what can you do to prioritize sleep as an essential component of good health? Once you are obtaining optimal sleep, you may then find the motivation to become another unplanned advocate for our adolescents.
Share the data with people you know, talk to your local school board members and superintendents, and ask if they are aware of the research. If you have teens in the home, teach them healthy sleep hygiene such as the tips offered by the Mayo Clinic website.
To quote the Centers for Disease Control: ‘sleep is a necessity, not a luxury.’