Be well, Marsha: 09/08

Hurt by the bell

By Marsha Bonhart

I am not an abusive parent. However, yes, I admit to using what could be considered unethical tactics to encourage my younger son to get out of bed on school mornings. Despite fairly strict scheduled bed times, he just didn’t seem to get enough sleep.

The 7-minute ride to elementary school was manageable: He could sleep a little later, eat oatmeal and drink orange juice in the car. High school was a different story. That 25-minute drive was an early struggle, with him sleeping most of the journey to meet the 8 a.m. starting bell.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every day during the school year, millions of U. S. students, whether parochial, private or public, sleepily approach school start times. The majority of those first bells trigger the school day far too early for the CDC’s comfort level. In fact, a new study by the national health agency shows students are groggy and grumpy daily—a result of ongoing loss of sleep.

The CDC is being even more specific with its concerns, targeting teenagers by revealing only a handful of high school students—less than 10 percent—are getting the recommended healthy night’s sleep. No calculator is needed. Ninety percent of high school students are not sleeping the nightly advised 9 to 10 hours, adversely affecting their physical and emotional health. The report further claims starting school before 8:30 a.m. creates a negative statement for the health and safety of adolescents, resulting in obesity from overeating unhealthy foods, diabetes, anxiety and mood disorders.

The CDC study is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization of doctors that specializes in the care of infants, children, adolescents and young adults.

The data includes middle school students, but it maintains that older kids need a school day that would allow them to rise later rather than fall asleep earlier. Experts say puberty could be the kindle that biologically wires teens to their imbalanced stay up late/wake up late sleep habits. That period of development adjusts adolescent biorhythms to create, as the AAP says, daylight savings in reverse. Because of that, the fatigue that builds for most of us takes a longer time to evolve in teens. So, even if they wanted to fall asleep, they couldn’t. The National Sleep Foundation reveals that setting later school start times did not result in kids going to bed earlier, but they did get more sleep at night.

Time Magazine’s Alice Park quotes Dr. Judith Owens, the director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington,
D. C.: “The evidence is clearly mounting both in terms of understanding the repercussions that chronic sleep loss has on the health, safety and performance of adolescents and there is also really solid compelling data supporting the fact that delaying school start times is a very important intervention that can mitigate some of the impact of sleep loss.”

An AAP subcommittee looked at how teenagers who don’t get enough sleep rely heavily on caffeine, alcohol and tobacco products. That deprivation, the study also shows, is visible in classroom performance and self awareness. To boost that theory, in past research, Dr. Owens studied 200 high school students whose classes were adjusted to begin at 8:30 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. The results of that time change were posted on WebMD and showed nearly 55 percent of the students increased their sleep hours to more than eight per night. The percentage of students who had reported poor emotional health dropped more than 20 percent, and the number of students who reported feeling uneasy or annoyed dropped by more than 22 percent.

The Sleep Foundation findings were similar, also showing the later bell ring promotes improvement in enrollment and attendance, a drop in tardiness and observed marked changes in alertness and mood by parents and teachers. The organization’s work supports California Rep. Zoe Lofgren who, in 1999, introduced legislation called “ZZZs to As,” a law that urges school districts to push class start times to 8:30 a.m. or later. The groundswell continues—last year, the NSF worked with Congresswoman Lofgren to show the connection between the school bell and adolescent well-being.

If teens looked at sleep the same way they consider a hot slice of pizza, perhaps they could better realize how catching Zs fuels the body. Sleep is the brain’s food, and it needs to cook slowly, at least 9 hours. Another visual: Imagine a huge Thanksgiving turkey that needs to take its time being prepared in the oven. When it’s not cooked well, and if the brain detects it is hungry for rest and needs fuel, it will shut down to get the sleep it needs. That can happen when you need it most. Like studying for a test. Lack of sleep limits how you process information. Or driving. Statistics show more than 100 thousand car crashes a year are linked to drowsiness or falling asleep at the wheel.

Luckily, my “drag him out of bed by any means necessary” 21-year-old escaped teen lack of sleep hazards. He is an academically successful college senior with a better driving record than his mom. Even I have to learn the lessons of getting a good night’s sleep.

(For Dayton area schools, there is a mixed bag of start times. High schools in the city’s public system start as late as 9 a.m. and as early as 8 a.m. Many local suburban middle and high schools start before just before 8 or 8:15. a.m.)

Marsha Bonhart is a veteran television news anchor and health reporter who feels it is her mission to help you stay healthy. She says she battles her seriously addicted craving for salty potato chips. Reach her at

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