Welcome to the inaugural Student Voices blog post from one of my sophomore students. When it comes to attending to the health skill of advocacy, I use YRBS data to allow my students to tailor their message to a health concern that affects them and/or their peers. One of the advocacy assignments asks students to earn ‘advocacy points’ based on a scale that ranks the depth of their advocacy. A conversation with a peer might earn you a point, whereas a sit down meeting with an administrator to discuss your health topic would earn you the full 10 points. As part of this assignment E.R chose to write about sleep. Any feedback you have for this student would be greatly appreciated.
Right now, we are in a national crisis. But this isn’t the President, guns, the climate or any other topic on the forefront of everyone’s minds. It’s sleep. Yes, that nightly period of inaction is a source of major problems in the United States right now. According to the CDC, around 35% of adults in the US were getting fewer than seven hours of sleep a night.1 But what’s the big deal, anyway? Sleep is just like relaxation, right? And if we don’t relax, then what’s the worst that can happen?
Actually, a lot can happen. Let’s look at the most extreme example: fatal familial insomnia (FFI). An extremely rare genetic condition, FFI is a prion disease,2 which means that it is a neurodegenerative disorder caused by the abnormal folding of prion proteins in the brain, which in turn causes brain damage.3 In the case of FFI, the thalamus is destroyed to the point that it appears to have been infested by boring worms. The thalamus controls the autonomic functions of the body, such as internal temperature, blood pressure, hormone release and heart rate. When these functions are no longer properly controlled, the body goes haywire.
But a sufferer of FFI would still be able to sleep, right? Actually, no. When an average person prepares to go to sleep, multiple different things happen to their body. For instance, both blood pressure and temperature drop. However, if neither of those things are being controlled, then the body doesn’t know that it needs to sleep. And if someone with FFI does fall asleep, then they can’t sleep deeply, which causes more disarray in their brain during the day.
And eventually, the lack of sleep is lethal. Even after only the first 24-48 hours of being awake, the body starts to undergo changes: hormone levels change, causing high blood pressure, internal temperature can drop and the immune system starts to fail.4 From the onset of the disease, a sufferer of FFI will live another couple of years as their thalamus is destroyed.
But for the average person, why does this matter? Not getting the recommended amount of sleep can have some life-changing consequences. An adult is supposed to get around eight hours every night. If that doesn’t happen, then there is a higher risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease.5 Furthermore, not sleeping enough can affect the brain.
As we all know, the brain is the control center of the body. Not only does it keep our hearts beating, it retains everything about our past, present and future. With all that work, it needs to recover from the day, and that’s what sleep allows for.6 At night, memories are strengthened as the brain sorts out neural connections. The unnecessary ones are weakened while the necessary connections are strengthened. Essentially, the brain cleans out the information that it has stored. Another thing that is cleaned is the brain itself. Recently, it was discovered that toxins in the brain are cleared out at a faster rate while asleep than awake; one of these toxins causes the blockages seen in Alzheimer’s.
The answer seems simple. Sleep more. There would be a decreased risk of getting multiple diseases, our brains would be clearer and the US economy could potentially gain up to 411 billion dollars a year.6 However, good habits have to start young. According to the Youth Risk Assessment Survey, almost 70% of high school students nationwide get fewer than eight hours of sleep a night, when the recommended amount is between eight and ten hours.1 This lack of sleep can do everything from inhibiting the ability to learn to contributing to acne.7 It can also affect brain development, which shows that getting enough sleep is of the utmost importance for anyone with a developing brain.
Without a doubt, sleep is one of the most important things we do in a day, and it cannot be neglected. However, the fault cannot be placed entirely on the people themselves; we have a lot of expectation put on us by systems we are a part of. One specific system is the school system. Because teenagers’ bodies are hardwired to stay up later and wake up later due to the fact that we produce melatonin, which induced sleep, later, the current school day simply doesn’t work.8 Biological facts cannot be overwritten by a couple of administrators. In fact, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) stated that school days for teenagers should start later than 8:30 a.m. This isn’t just a couple of “experts.” This is an official position from a group of more than 10,000 scientists and experts. In order to protect our brains and bodies, good habits need to start early, which means that school days should start later.
If you liked this, you might like Andy Horne’s ‘Sleep Rap’.
Additionally, another student of mine provided the audio to this Sleep Podcast.