I left off last week’s conversation with the mention of some of the results of the largest experimentally controlled study on sleep deprivation to date. Developed by Michigan State University, the study revealed just how detrimental operating without sleep can be – regardless your station in life. The study validates findings that suggest lack of sleep is one of the primary reasons for human error in adults. It is equally problematic for young people and particularly important during adolescence, a time of significant brain changes affecting learning, self-control and emotional systems.
Recent estimates suggest that nearly half of all adolescents in the United States are sleep-deprived. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the sleep requirement for teenagers is eight to 10 hours per night. On a school night, the average teen is getting less than seven hours.
Neuroscience describes sleep as the glue that helps the brain encode recently learned information into long-term knowledge. It improves focus in school because sleep helps dampen hyperactive behavior, strong emotional reactions and other disruptive behaviors. A good night’s sleep can help a student who might normally be dismissed from the classroom for disruptive behavior to stay in class. And more time in class leads to more learning.
For years, we have been living with this stereotypical image of lazy teenagers having to be dragged out of bed in the morning. (Ferris Bueller is just one example that comes to mind). According to Kyla Wahlstrom, a senior research fellow in Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development at the University of Minnesota, an adolescent’s inability to be fully awake before 8 a.m. is more a matter of human biology than attitude.
Research that began in the 1980s cast new light on what goes on in the teenage brain. While medical researchers found that sleep patterns of younger children enable them to rise early and be ready for learning – not so for adolescents.
Our brains release the sleep hormone melatonin as a signal that allows us to fall and stay asleep. Studies have shown that for virtually all adolescents, the secretion of melatonin does not begin until about 10:45 p.m. and continues until about 8 a.m. Most teenagers are unable to fall asleep until melatonin secretion begins, and it is hard to wake up before the melatonin secretion stops. The unique sleep-wake pattern of teens is beyond their control. Wahlstrom says that once puberty is over, teens’ fixed pattern of melatonin secretion changes back to the times they each individually and genetically prefer.
Parents, doctors and educators have struggled for years to identify what to do to improve sleep. Since 2014, major national health organizations have taken a policy stand to support the implementation of later starting times for high school. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, most recently, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine have all come out with statements that recommend high schools start class at 8:30 a.m. or later.
A newly released report by the RAND Corporation projects annual gains to the U.S. economy of nearly $9.4 billion over 15 years if high schools nationwide start class at 8:30 a.m. While hundreds of schools in 45 states across the country have made the shift, acceptance of this change continues to meet resistance. While the battle to implement external changes in school hours rages on, some researchers are beginning to take notice of how little attention is placed on the fundamentals of good sleep.
Research from one developmental neuroscience lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, found a solution to the sleep-deprivation problem that is remarkably simple. It does not involve technology, expensive interventions or lots of time. Research by Adriana Galvan – a UCLA psychology professor working under a grant provided by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health and others – found that ensuring teens have comfortable, quality bedding has shown to improve their sleep. The key was a good pillow.
Researchers found that, when it comes to pillows, one size does not fit all. For some people, a flat pancake pillow did the trick, while others preferred a puffier version. The common denominator was pillow comfort.
Writing in The Conversation, Galvan points out that higher sleep quality is defined by fewer awakenings per night. In her study, adolescents had an average of five awakenings per night that ranged in duration from less than a minute to over an hour. This is considered in acceptable range for quality sleep. “Adolescents who reported greater satisfaction with their bedding and pillows were the ones who had greater sleep quality,” she writes, “and greater sleep quality was associated with greater brain connectivity, an effect that cut across socioeconomic lines.”
It seems an untapped weapon in achieving sleep quality could be a puffy pillow away.
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