The Cheat Sheet

The body clock, the Nobel, and the economics of Zzz…

VENKY VEMBU | Updated on January 08, 2018


Curiously, that’s precisely the area of study that won three scientists this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

What, the science of sleep?

More broadly, the science of circadian rhythms, the biological process that determines our physical, mental and behavioural changes, which abide by a daily, 24-hour cycle, primarily in response to light and darkness. It’s also the science that accounts for why we sleep at night and are wakeful during the day.

You’ve obviously never met my adolescent nephew!

He may be a bit of a night owl, but science can account for his nocturnal wakefulness, too: we’ll get to him in just a bit.

Okay, so tell me more about this wondrous rhythm…

All humans, and even animals, plants and fungi, have an invisible clock ticking in nearly every cell of their being. This ‘body clock’ controls our physiological forms so precisely to match day and night that any disruption to that rhythm has malefic effects. Think of jetlag, the grogginess that overcomes us when we travel across time zones in a short span.

Is this something that bothers only frequent fliers?

Not at all. Circadian rhythm disorders, which manifest themselves mostly in irregular sleep patterns, can be caused by, among other factors, jobs that require working on night shifts; pregnancy; and certain medications. Everything from city living to gazing into TVs and handphones late at night upsets the cycle; and the practice of ‘daylight saving’, where 40 countries reset their clock forward (or back) with the change of seasons, too upsets the rhythm.

And all this has an economic consequence?

Absolutely. There have been several studies to understand the economic consequences of circadian rhythm disorders. Last year, a study across five developed economies (the US, the UK, Germany, Japan and Canada) examined the economic burden of insufficient sleep. Titled ‘Why sleep matters’, it estimated that up to $680 billion a year is lost in these countries due to insufficient sleep.

What’s the cure?

Companies are waking up to the idea that well-rested employees improve productivity levels. In fact, new-age companies (Uber, Google, Ben & Jerry’s, among others) have ‘nap stations’ where employees can refresh themselves.

Getting paid to sleep on the job?

Don’t push it!

Now, about my nephew…

Studies have established that many adolescents are sleep-deprived because of early school start times and changing sleep patterns during their teen years. In fact, a 2011 study, ‘A’s from Zzzz’s? The Causal Effect of School Start Time on the Academic Achievement of Adolescents’ established that allowing adolescents to start school later in the morning improves grades.

Why doesn’t the ‘early to bed, early to rise’ model work?

The adolescent body does not begin to produce melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, until around 11 pm, and continues peak production until about 7 am. In contrast, adult melatonin levels peak at 4 am. Waking up a teenager at 7 am is equivalent to waking up an adult at 4 am.

The bottomline?

Researchers say policymakers are reluctant to change school timings citing bus schedules, and decreased times after school for sports and other activities. But, they say, changing school start timings is “one of the easiest and least expensive ways of improving academic achievement.”

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on October 04, 2017

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