Sleep is for losers. Kush Thaker, 17, doesn’t say so explicitly – he’s a student politician, after at all – but it’s clear that he has been sold on the awake-is-great ethos of modern society. Pulling an all-nighter is “glorified.” The notion that he may spend one-third of his life sleeping is “daunting.” He admires the entrepreneurs whose “brilliant ideas strike at 4 a.m.” High achievers, he explains, “are expected to forgo sleep.”
And Kush has better things to do, including Grade 12 homework, texting, updating his Facebook page, working on a national youth blog and his obligations as a Toronto school board student trustee. He estimates that he gets four to six hours a night. “I know it’s not good, but I have gotten used to functioning while drowsy,” he says. “I wish I did get more sleep. But it’s just rationally weighing the costs and benefits. Sleep is my reserve time.”
But a growing body of brain science and behavioural research serves as a wake-up call to the fact that his calculation is wrong.
For one thing, sleep is an investment that reduces stress and improves productivity. Last year, Harvard researchers estimated that chronic sleep deprivation was costing U.S. companies $63.2-billion annually, because dozy employees are less effective.
Research shows that good sleepers are less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise, and drink less alcohol. Athletes who sleep longer perform better.
Getting extra sleep, a recent study found, really does produce better test results than using the time to crack the books. Sleep even keeps us svelte – when tired, we’re much more likely to be seduced by salty French fries.
It is no coincidence that, over the past 50 years, citizens of the industrialized world have, as well as getting fatter and more anxious, lost about an hour of sleep a night – roughly one full night’s worth every week. And because of city lights, social media and such habits as eating and exercising later at night, what sleep remains is often not the soundest. As Till Roenneberg, the author of Internal Time, points out, 80 per cent of the world now needs an alarm clock to get up each morning. As a result, the head of human chronobiology at the University of Munich’s Institute of Medical Psychology says, we live in a permanent state of “social jet lag.”
And no segment of the population is more jet-lagged than teenagers. Surveys show that no fewer than three-quarters of them fail to get the rest they need, and find themselves in school the next morning expected to learn when their brains want them to sleep.
Society is increasingly torn when it comes to sleep – we lament its loss even as we boast of how little we require. Because rising at dawn made more sense when most people were farmers and candle wax was expensive, the shift from early bird to nighthawk seems of no great consequence.
Yet as science demonstrates how, without enough sleep, the brain falters, there is a growing campaign to turn back the clock. Researchers are calling for more specific school-based interventions, particularly for elementary students, to establish better sleep habits early on life, and to make sleep education more central in health classes.
And what exactly will happen if nothing is done to help people get a decent night’s sleep – can we adapt and learn to thrive with less rest? Scientists admit that they don’t know, but the early indications suggest that society’s new bedtime story won’t have a happy ending.
“We have all heard of healthy eating – the same thing has to happen now with sleep,” says Reut Gruber, a clinical psychologist at McGill University who studies sleep and has created an education program for elementary students in Montreal-area schools.
Adults’ bad habits, she says, are setting an unhealthy pattern because kids get the message that sleep is “a waste of time.” But good diet and exercise won’t make us healthy, if we don’t sleep well at the end of every day.