The problem with irregular sleeping patterns

Sleeping 1Bedtime; known to inflict a sense of dread on the young and one of anticipation on the old, the set time at which we go to sleep every night could be more significant to our health than we were previously led to believe.

Scientists at the University of London have shown that irregular bedtimes may impair early development after finding that children – especially girls – who went to sleep at a different time each night fared worse at mental tasks than children with regular bedtimes.

Data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), a long-time record of children born in 2000-01, was used to compare test performances at various ages with regular and irregular bedtimes (for which parents answered ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’ when asked whether their children went to bed at a regular time on weekdays). They found that the difference was greatest in three year olds where children who had irregular bedtimes scored lower in tests of maths, reading and spatial skills than children with regular bedtimes.

Sacker explains that, “If a child is having irregular bedtimes at a young age, they’re not synthesising all the information around them.” This, she says, makes it harder when growing up. This might explain why, despite the differences in test scores being very slight, the differences cumulate with the continuation of irregular bedtimes throughout childhood.

Surprisingly though, the hour at which children went to bed had no significant effect on their performance, which suggests that the regularity of bedtime may be more significant than the time at which they it is set.

Children aren’t the only ones susceptible to the dangers of an irregular bedtime though, as shown by researchers at the University of Southampton, who have recently found that those working irregular shifts suffered from more fertility problems than those with regular – night or day – shifts.

The meta-analysis of all studies on the subject between 1969 and January 2013 was led by Dr Ying Cheong and included data on 119,345 women.

Not only were those working alternating shifts seen to have a 33 per cent higher rate of menstrual disruption than those on regular shifts, but they also showed an 80 per cent higher rate of sub-fertility, meaning that they weren’t able to conceive within twelve months. As seen in the child study though, the timing of sleep seemed to be less significant for although those working night shifts suffered a 29 per cent increased rate of miscarriage, they did not suffer when trying to conceive.

Dr Stocker, a clinical research fellow at the University, suggests that this is down to the fact that “shift workers adopt poor sleep hygiene, suffer sleep deprivation and develop activity levels that are out-of-sync with their body clock”.

This parallels with University life which, for the large majority of students, consists of late nights, disturbed sleep and midday naps. How much of a detrimental effect could this be having on the health and performance of young adults across the country?

Dr Stocker reminds us that “the long-term effects of altering circadian rhythms are inherently difficult to study” so it’s very hard to come across conclusive evidence in this area. It was only through the use of shifts as a measure of “short and long-term biological disturbances” that they were able to carry out their research and even then, Stocker suspects that “it is probable that completely different causes underlie menstrual dysfunction, miscarriage and sub-fertility. However, if our results are confirmed by other studies, there may be implications for shift workers and their reproductive plans. More friendly shift patterns with less impact on circadian rhythm could be adopted.”

This begs the question then, of whether a similar change to University routine could benefit students. Would the aggregation, over the alternation of student nights throughout the week (resulting in a somewhat more regular sleeping pattern), truly improve our health and performance? Surely we need only reflect on the weekend after Freshers Week to find the answer to that question.

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