Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #7: …And Plenty of Sleep

In Macbeth, the guilt-ridden titular character of Shakespeare’s tragedy begins to hear auditory hallucinations telling him that he has lost the ability to sleep, and will, for the rest of the play, effectively have become an insomniac. Realising what he’s lost, Macbeth lamentingly lists sleep’s virtues:

Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
Macbeth (2.2.46-51)

He couldn’t have been more right. More and more studies are pointing to the desperate need our society has for more and better sleep, as well as to the drastic and rather frightening consequences of not getting it.

How much sleep should kids be getting? The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following:

That’s right; teenagers need more sleep than adults. Not less. But how many of you with teenaged children find that it’s you who are getting more sleep? Oh, sure, teenagers might sleep late on the weekends. But that’s part of the vicious cycle of adolescent sleep deprivation, which according to all kinds of sources, is approaching epidemic levels: here’s a graphic showing how it works.

Taking this one item at a time, it begins with later bedtimes for teenagers. This has many causes, including an apparent circadian “reset” that happens during adolescence. As is usual with such findings, however, it should be taken with a grain of salt, lest we fall prey to the “chicken and egg” fallacy: are the changes in the brains of teenagers the cause, or the result, of their changes in habits? Knowing what we know about neuroplasticity, it’s a question worth asking. More on that later.

Another reason teenagers are staying up later is the reason most of us these days are doing it: there is an unnerving loss of the conditions under which humans have traditionally slept: that is, night. We are losing true nighttime, as I realised in 2003, when I was in New York City during the great Blackout of August in that year. I spent a couple of days sleeping on the floor of the airport, and I was privileged to see what hardly anyone in my lifetime has seen: the Milky Way in the skies above Manhattan. Light pollution has turned nighttime, for the majority of us on the planet who now live in cities, into a kind of a dull glow, or a “luminous fog”, as Ian Cheney puts it in his documentary on the Loss of Night, titled The City Dark.

The body, simply put, needs darkness. The ebb and flow of sunlight in our normal ancestral days regulates melatonin production in the brain. Disrupting this process with light – particularly blue light – has a number of surprising adverse health effects, including cancer, depression, obesity, and heart disease. Yes, cancer – and it seems like light pollution might exacerbate air pollution, too, by killing air-cleansing agents that live only in the darkness! The American Medical Association (AMA) has recognised the important role light pollution plays in detrimental health effects on the population: the AMA, in their Action of the AMA House of Delegates 2012 Annual Meeting, “Recognizes that exposure to excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders, especially in children and adolescents.” (My emphasis)
The presence of TV, computer, and now cell phone screens in bedrooms is a major deterrent to normal sleep patterns, as well. And, of course, there are social reasons for teens’ staying up later: they’re building and testing their autonomy away from parental influence.

Unfortunately, although teenagers might try to compensate by sleeping late on weekends, the body’s need for sleep functions something like a bank account: you can run a debt, and it’s cumulative. That means that if you accumulate ten hours’ worth of “sleep debt” one week, just returning to normal sleep levels the next week isn’t going to cut it: You need to regain those ten lost hours on top of it. And the body is an unforgiving creditor, as we shall see.

What are, then, the consequences of sleeplessness? It’s a lot worse than just grumpiness in the mornings, which most parents of teens have experience with. In fact, it’s really, really bad. And the worst part is, we’re not taking it seriously. So it appears that it’ll get worse before it improves. Here’s a graphic that outlines just some of the problems:

Let’s start with the physical consequences of sleep deprivation. As an ex-soldier, I’m familiar with quite a few of them personally, and I remember my acquaintance with them with a great deal of discomfort, even 15 years later. Sleep deprivation contributes to:

• Hypertension
• Heart disease
• Diabetes
• Obesity
• Reduced immunity
• Death

Yeah, death. Both because of the reduced immunity (hamsters kept awake died within 3 days), as well as over 100 000 car accidents a year caused by inattention or microsleeps behind the wheel. (Humans can’t stay awake indefinitely; unavoidable moments of sleep called ‘microsleeps’ happen involuntarily not long into prolonged sleep deprivation conditions.) Death by car accident remains the Number One killer of our young people in Canada and the U.S., although our complete surrender to a car culture blinds us to the sheer staggering numbers: In the U.S. in 2010, seven teenagers died every single day in car accidents. Add to that, the number of kids whose health is affected by obesity, as well as the second-biggest killer of teens – suicide, which is of course linked to depression (see below) – and you’ve accounted for the majority of teen deaths in North America, period. Taken together or apart, these are a clear and present danger to our young people.

Bad as those are, the cognitive consequences are just as harmful. Sleep deprivation causes or contributes to:

• Symptoms often mistaken for ADHD, an increasingly-diagnosed disorder in teens
• Reduction in ability to concentrate and pay attention
• Memory reduction and loss, as well as reduced verbal skills (as an English teacher, I see this all the time).  This also includes a heavy reliance on simple, clichéd phrases and a crippled capacity for creativity.  Uncommunicative, incoherent teens are a cliché themselves!
• Hallucinations (I vividly remember seeing Napoleon one night after many days in the field!)
• Impaired judgement, especially moral judgement:  it turns the world into a black-and-white affair
• Depression (also increasingly diagnosed in our teens)
• Reduced ability to cope with negative emotions (the famous ‘moody teen’ syndrome)
• Increased percentages of substance abuse
Impaired ability to judge and manage risk (which contributes to all sorts of behaviour that adults have blamed teens for in the past)

In our society, where teenagers and adults are generally, chronically, sleep-deprived, it bears thinking about the consequences. From my vantage point as an educator, I can tell two things:

1. I can’t educate sleep-deprived teens. Their brains are too severely compromised for real learning to take place.

2. This is bigger than it looks. Take a good look at the list of cognitive and physical consequences. Apart from hallucinations and death, how many so-called “attributes” of adolescence, as it has been defined by our society, are actually not essential to teens at all, but to sleep deprivation? How many of the current epidemics of ADHD, poor academic performance, depression, moodiness, substance abuse, car accidents, obesity, and poor judgement that we have traditionally looked at individually, might actually be the result, or at least exacerbated by, lack of decent sleep?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, teenagers in North America and the developed world are not typical of adolescents in either the rest of the world, or in the historical record. The danger of looking at our teens, who are extreme outliers in terms of behaviour worldwide, as representing some kind of biological or developmental “norm” is a big one. It causes us to look at behaviour which is actually by definition “unnatural”, judge it as ‘normal’, and then adjust our expectations based on a false norm. I see no reason in the historical record or in other cultures I’ve visited to believe that the intensely anti-social, attention-challenged, moody behaviour and crippled judgement capacity that most North Americans associate with the teenage years is biologically based at all. Looking at this evidence, I’m strongly leaning toward viewing all those symptoms as springing from (or at least connected to) a single cause – namely, unhealthy sleep patterns.

In a typically Western fashion, we have ascribed these behaviours to non-contextual categories, and decided that they represent the ‘nature’ of adolescence, rather than seeing them in a broader social, historical, and holistic matrix of contingencies. In a brilliant paper published in 2010, UBC professors Joseph Heinrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan challenge the practice of making universal generalizations about psychological norms based on studies that are done almost exclusively on American undergraduate students. Heinrich et al. point out that of all the human populations in the world, these WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Developed) people are among the least likely to represent global norms. In fact, in areas as wide-ranging as spatial awareness, visual perception, moral reasoning, inferential reasoning, WEIRD people are “frequent outliers”, “particularly unusual compared to the rest of the species”. They go on to say in the abstract that “members of WEIRD societies, including young children, [my emphasis] are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.” The full paper, available as a PDF here, is well worth reading.

We’re witnessing a number of crises in the mental and physical health of our children, but are we being blinded to a simple solution to nearly all of them simultaneously, because we’ve become so used to the symptoms of the epidemics of obesity, depression, suicide, and car accidents that we’ve started thinking they’re normal?


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