Medication Nation – Sleep makes the grade

By Darrel Crain, D.C.

The struggle to discover new ways to raise our students’ test scores has become a primary focus in schools all across the land. All manner of innovation is being tried to see what works. Special teaching programs with special books, elaborate computer and video instruction, even weekend retreats – we keep scrambling to kick the numbers up just one more notch!

I read in the newspaper the other day that a new level of dedication to higher test scores was reached recently in a nearby school district. Teachers there have begun donating their free time to stay after the bell rings and keep on teaching. For many of the teachers, this just means adding more time to the extra time they were already donating. Of course, California teachers are also accustomed to donating their own money to buy classroom materials that districts can’t afford.

But another trend has surfaced in a few school districts around the country, one that is setting off alarms, or should I say, turning off alarms. They have found a way to improve test scores, enhance athletic performance, reduce misbehavior and improve attendance. What is happening in these school districts in Virginia, Colorado, Kentucky, Connecticut and Minnesota that we should know about? Are they trying out powerful new drugs? Thankfully, not this time.

“A schoolteacher is one who talks in someone else’s sleep,” according to the old wisdom. Apparently, this is especially true during the first hours of the morning.

“Since the amount of sleep a student gets correlates strongly with academic performance and social behavior, it’s important for high schools to have later start times,” said William Dement, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Stanford University.

“Inadequate sleep makes kids more moody, more impulsive, and less able to concentrate. We’ve know for more than 20 years that sleep deprivation makes it difficult to learn,” said pediatrician Alan Greene, M.D. He believes chronic poor sleep results in daytime tiredness, difficulties with focused attention, difficulty controlling behavior and a lower threshold for irritability and frustration.

Sounds to me like a list of symptoms for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)! In fact, a nearly identical list appeared recently in a magazine advertisement I read for antidepressants. Yes or no: do you have trouble with grades, school or work, an inability to concentrate, troubled relationships with family and friends, and loss of control over behavior? “If you said yes to all of these, the problem may be depression. The good news – you can get treatment and feel better!” I’m thinking a recommendation for more sleep is not what the drug company had in mind.

I wonder how many kids in our town are downing daily doses of powerful stimulants to treat what is actually sleep deprivation? Especially since a common trait among children diagnosed with ADHD is restless, interrupted sleep. Worse yet, adding stimulants into a child’s nervous system is known to degrade the quality of their sleep even more. The good news is that finding natural ways to help kids sleep better seems to improve behavior, even if lack of restful sleep is not the core problem.

If you’ve ever had teenagers, you are no doubt familiar with conversations that go something like this: “You’ve got to go to bed right now!”
“Why?”
“Because you have to get up early and go to school!”
“But I’m not sleepy!”
“Well, go to bed anyway!”
“Why should I go to bed if I’m not sleepy?”
“Because you need sleep!” And so on.

Parents may feel that teenage defiance and procrastination are the cause of late night chatting on the telephone, chatting on the Internet, watching TV, and basically doing everything else besides going to sleep. But Brown University Professor Mary Carskadon tells us these are not acts of rebellion. Researchers have “…measured the presence of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin in teenagers’ saliva at different times of the day. They learned that the melatonin levels rise later at night than they do in children and adults – and remain at a higher level later in the morning.”

That explains why rousting our slumbering sons and daughters out of the sack in the morning is like trying to raise the dead. “If people were meant to pop out of bed, we’d all sleep in toasters,” an anonymous sage once observed.

Carskadon claims that it is time for American schools to face the biological facts. “Children learn from kindergarten on about the food pyramid…But no one is teaching them the life pyramid that has sleep at the base.” In her view, efforts to improve student achievement should begin with starting school later in the morning.

It appears we need to adapt to the idea that adolescents have different sleep patterns than adults, alert in the evening and bleary-eyed in the morning. Doctors pretty much agree that children and teenagers need nine and a half hours of sleep or more every night. How many hours are your teens getting? I’m pretty sure mine do not get enough sleep during the school year.

There are more than 13,000 school systems in the United States. Estimates are that the vast majority of high schools across the country still start at about 7 a.m. “There is no magic number about when to start school, but closer to 8 is better than closer to 7, and closer to 8:30 is probably better than 7:30,” according to Professor Carskadon.

Of course, changing the school start hour is not a simple matter and costs money. Some communities have considered a start-time change only to later abandon the effort when community opposition prevented it. Concern centers on lost time for after-school activities and athletic practice, and difficulty for students to keep after-school jobs.

Making a time change obviously affects everyone, including siblings, parents, teachers, administrators, district personnel, and the rest of the community. But an organization called Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal (SLEEP) reports that many of those fears may be unfounded.

“While any change requires adjustments, experience in other jurisdictions indicates no major problems. A year after the Minneapolis high schools switched to an 8:40 a.m. start time, 92 percent of parents reported being happy with the change.”

According to SLEEP, schools “…have found that participation in sports and other extracurricular activities actually improved after going to later start and end times…Coaches in Wilton (Connecticut) noted that the year after the bell schedule change was one of their best athletic seasons, with the high school winning several state athletic championships.”

All of this talk about sleep really got me wondering though, what about the rest of us? Our whole country is 24-hourized, sleep-deprived, over-stimulated and just plain tired.

“That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all natural graces, sleep,” remarked Aldous Huxley.

We mustn’t forget history’s lesson that sleep deprivation has played a pivotal role in some the worst catastrophes in modern history. For example, the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island happened in the wee hours, reportedly caused by drowsy workers with poor judgment. The gas leak in Bohpal, India in 1984 was blamed on inattentive, fatigued workers. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger has been blamed on decisions made by managers who hadn’t slept much for days. The Chernobyl nuclear meltdown was linked to sleepiness of the workers there. And who can forget the Exxon Valdez that went aground up in Alaska? Faulty orders from a sleep-deprived first mate are blamed for that one.

Sleep is clearly not an option, it is a necessity. The only issues are the quality and the quantity of the sleep we get. Research suggests that more sleep could be a key to higher academic achievement. Do you suppose getting more sleep could change the health and safety of the entire world?

“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together,” said Thomas Dekker. He may be right. I don’t know though, I’ll have to get back to you on this one. I need to sleep on it.

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Comments? Questions? Opinions? Rants? Call Darrel Crain at 619-445-0100

Dr. Darrel Crain
Family Chiropractor
Natural Health Writer
President, CCA San Diego County District

planetc1.com-news @ 5:18 am | Article ID: 1160666325