Sleep is the third pillar of health — stop overlooking its importance

Valerie Crabtree, PhD, Chief of Psychosocial Services at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, was recently a featured keynote speaker at TEDx Memphis. Her talk (video above), entitled “Teen Sleep: What is it good for? Absolutely everything,” focuses on how very early school start times are detrimental to the health of teenagers as well as those around them. Here, Crabtree reflects on the experience of TEDx Memphis and why this topic is so important.

Why Sleep? A pillar of health and performance

As a society, we really undervalue the role of sleep in our health. You can see people almost bragging about how little sleep they get, bragging about staying up late to finish work. You've heard people say things such as, "I'll sleep when I'm dead."

But sleep is the third pillar of health, along with nutrition and movement— that keeps us healthy and balanced. Insufficient sleep makes us overweight, sick and sluggish.

Sleep has been my focus since the beginning of my career. At St. Jude, so much of what we do is very specific to our patient population. I work primarily with pediatric cancer patients and cancer survivors and have a lot to say about sleep in this group.

I knew that speaking at TEDx would give me the opportunity to reach a broad audience, so I wanted to talk about something that would have meaning for a large number of people. What is more universal than the need for sleep?

I have always been concerned about unhealthy, early school start times for adolescents, but here in the Memphis area, it's a really big problem.

Locally, our high schools start in the earliest 10% in the United States. Districts in other parts of the country struggling with changing their start times may be starting at 7:45 or 7:50—but 7 a.m., or 7:15 a.m. like in Shelby County and the surrounding areas? This is just excessively early.

Once my own kids started getting older, I started advocating locally. It really is an epidemic that teens are not getting enough sleep.

Here is what the science says about sleep

For teenagers, circadian rhythms (sleep/wake rhythms) become naturally delayed. We find this very close to the onset of puberty—naturally their bodies don't want to go to sleep until 10:30-11 p.m. Of note, they also still needed 8-10 hours of sleep each night.

Teenagers who sleep in on the weekends are often perceived as lazy, and that's just not right.  What’s more, the lack of sleep in our teenagers is detrimental to their health, and dangerous.

By simply by moving school start times later, we can solve many of these problems. In my TEDx talk, I cite numerous successful case studies where schools around the country are moving to later start times, and are seeing great rewards: teens getting more sleep, better attendance rates, fewer tardies, less substance abuse, lower rates of depression, and dramatic decreases in automobile accidents.

What I'm really hoping will come from sharing this message, especially on a platform such as TEDx, is that families will come to recognize that perhaps their teens aren’t lazy—they are sleepy. I want families to feel empowered to approach their local school boards and advocate for their own kids. I want school boards locally and across America to take notice of compelling research that shows on how healthy start times can positively impact teens.

Our schools follow CDC guidelines and AAP recommendations for everything from vaccination schedules to hand washing and all the other things that are really important for health. But they aren’t following the guidelines for school start times.  We, as a society, must do better about understanding the importance of sleep for our health, and it should start with our education system.

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Watch Dr. Crabtree successfully advocate with a local school board regarding later school start times.

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Valerie Crabtree, PhD

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About the author

Valerie Crabtree, PhD, is an associate faculty member and chief of psychosocial services in the Psychology Department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. View full bio.

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