Night owls


In the February 2010 news feature of The Science Daily, a research project regarding the sleep habits of adolescents was reported as discovering a potential link between the amount of time spent indoors, the amount of morning light and the delayed sleep cycle of teens.

In the study, which was recently published in Neuroendocrinology Letters, Dr. Mariana Figueiro, assistant professor and program director at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Research Center, discusses the results of her experiment conducted on eighth-grade students from middle schools in North Carolina and New York.

During the experiment, Dr. Figueiro gave a test group specialized glasses that prevented short-wavelength, blue spectrum morning light from reaching their eyes. She found that the lack of morning light delayed the participants’ sleep cycles by 30 minutes at the end of a five-day study.

Dr. Figueiro also investigated the amount of light obtained inside schools where the design of the school dictated how much morning light students experienced.

Dr. Figueiro found that a lack of blue spectrum morning light causes a delay in the release of the hormone melatonin, which is in charge of letting the body know that it is night time. This delays the overall sleep cycle of adolescents. As a result, teens sleep later and experience what Dr. Figueiro refers to as “night owl syndrome.”

Dr. Figueiro suggests that schools should ensure that the right amount of morning light reach teenage students so they can help stop this cycle of delayed sleep. This is to make up for the school schedule that disrupts the “biological rhythms” of teens, in which they are asked to get to school very early and stay indoors before they receive any exposure to the required blue spectrum morning light. Such sleep patterns have been shown to hinder performance abilities of students both in the studies conducted and in school.

So, does this mean that university students who pull all-nighters and sleep in, if they have the chance to, are experiencing the same pattern? Have we adopted the ways of the owl, in which our peak functioning occurs late at night and our rest is during the morning, when the blue spectrum light awaits?

Dr. Figueiro and her colleagues have to do further research to show the extent of the effects of blue spectrum morning light on university students. But it is good to know that our poor sleeping habits are not entirely due to our own neglect and abuse of caffeinated drinks. Maybe it is the timing in which we must attend class that clashes with our opportunities to absorb the morning blue light and is shaping our owl-like ways.