Sleep Is Affecting Students In More Ways Than We Thought

Jack Taggart

12/20/19

“Life would definitely be easier if I got more sleep,” says Palko Horkulic, a freshman at ACA. “More sleep would mean better concentration, and therefore better grades.”  Although many factors will affect a student’s academic, mental, and social life, few can have a more profound consequence than their sleeping habits. Until recently, experts were largely unaware of the biological science behind the concept of sleep and how it could affect people in their day-to-day living. But now, even as physicians, therapists, biologists, and psychiatrists alike are finding substantial evidence to the positive effects of healthy sleeping habits, the general public remains vastly unaware of the benefits and importance of sleep, and we are suffering from the consequences. In his book, Why We Sleep, PhD and professor of Neuroscience Matthew Walker stated “Every component of wellness, and countless seams of societal fabric, are being eroded by our costly state of sleep neglect: human and financial alike.” 

Sleep is especially critical in the developmental teenage years, which, ironically, are when students may have the least time to sleep. Early school start times, intense homework loads, and extracurricular activities all require plenty of sleep, which they may actually be preventing. Palko Horkulic goes on to say “I often feel like homework gets in the way of sleeping, especially now that I’m in high school.”

Another factor that contributes to the loss of sleep epidemic is the widespread use of digital devices such as laptops, computers, and phones, all made readily available relatively recently. These devices emit a certain kind of light known as blue light. Blue light sends signals to the brain much like those emitted from the sun, signalling the body that it’s time to wake up, and causing your brain to expel melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel tired and keeps you asleep. Checking texts, watching videos, or typing on a computer before bed are common habits of many teens, but often result in loss of sleep.

 Lastly, many people of all ages neglect to set healthy sleeping habits, simply because the effects are not always entirely obvious. Early morning drowsiness is quickly thwarted away with a daily cup of coffee. Long days awake are sustained by a vast selection of diet sodas and energy drinks, allowing you to stay wide awake with seemingly no consequences. The truth is actually far different.

“One of the huge things [sleep] is for is for your brain. When you sleep, your brain cleans house so to speak.  Neuro-pathways get cleaned up and rebuilt. If you’re in school, you’re having to use your brain all the time. So you’re retrieval [memory] pathways, being able to access the things you need, just being able to focus… if you don’t get that, then your retrieval pathways, your focus, you lose that,” says Ann Heppner, a learning specialist and high school biology teacher at ACA.

This statement was echoed by ACA’s school counselor, Alicia Heinsoo.

“Students really need sleep, because you’re trying to learn these things, then retain them, and then prove that you’ve retained them by taking a test. People don’t say ‘make sure you get a ton of sleep the night before a test’. Instead, you stay up late before the test and you study. That does not work.”

Academic performance aside, sleep is also known to have a profound impact on the physical, emotional, and of course, mental health. Heppner continues, “You’re going to have a lot more energy; your mood is going to be lot more positive. Obviously it’s beneficial, otherwise we wouldn’t have it.”

Not only that, quality sleep is known to profoundly strengthen your immune system, and decrease the risk of cancer, heart disease, and many more ailments. As Heppner goes on to say, “The health issues are pretty across the board: you’ll have more heart problems, more stress related things, more anxiety related things, your brain doesn’t work as well, and it’s related to alzheimer’s.”

So what can be done to halt world-wide crisis of sleep deprivation? Luckily, steps are already being taken to allow students to have the sleep they need. Later start  times have been implemented in many schools around the country, and some states have moved forward with plans to ratify later start times for all schools in the state. While the general start time for ACA is at 9:00 am, (with the exception of  some ES meetings, a high school geometry class, a guitar class, Chamber Orchestra, Consumer Math, and Academic Seminar), many students still struggle to find a balance of time for homework, extracurricular activities, after-school jobs, free time, and sleep. It’s a problem full of complexity in both a logistical and biological sense, and for now, it seems that the best that can be done is to practice and establish good habits of time management (see sidebar).

Sources:

Horkulic, Palko. “Re: Sleep.” Received by John Taggart, 13 Dec. 2019.

Walker, Matthew. WhyWe Sleep. New York. 2017. (Pg. 4).

Hepner, Ann. Personal interview. 11 December 2019. 

Heinsoo, Alicia. Personal interview. 11 December 2019.

Sleep.org. Accessed 13 December 2019.