It’s back-to-school season. You probably noticed your Sunday newspaper was twice as thick; ads falling out everywhere when you tried to pick it up. This is a tough time for every family, perhaps more so than you would think.
We have had eight to 10 weeks to settle into our summer routines; “the living is easy” – sort of. The kids sleep late and go to bed still later, managing to maintain a constant state of sleep deprivation, and shift their internal clocks the equivalent of two or three time zones.
Summer diets have changed as well. Sit-down meals are much less the norm as everyone settles into different schedules and consumes calories pretty much when they want – carb loading, anyone? Your kids’ bodies have adapted to a more frequent, and less balanced, calorie input, and insulin and cortisol levels have changed to deal with this.
Jet-lagged and hypoglycemic, we all bravely face the new school year.
Jet lag, or desynchronosis, simply means your kids’ circadian or internal clock is not aligned with the clock at school – just like flying across a few time zones. Come the first day of school, 7 a.m. on the outside will feel like 4 a.m. on the inside. Everyone has an internal clock located in the hypothalamus of their brains. This is also where the limbic system is, the home of emotions as well as control of metabolism.
The circadian clock drives many of the body’s functions. Body temperature goes up during the day and cools at night. The gut is awake, and people feel hunger according to this clock. This clock controls melatonin, the sleep hormone. Internal clocks are calibrated with light information from the eyes and keeps track of how long since we last slept.
Teenagers have biological-based sleep cycles that have them awake and ready to learn shortly before 9 a.m., not at 7:40.
Bed time, if you look at blood melatonin levels, naturally occurs around 11 p.m. Is it even a good idea to start school so early in the morning? Studies have shown that getting kids up early causes more than 25% of high school students to fall asleep in their first class, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Not an ideal learning arrangement. There have been some interesting experiments with shifting school hours, that show benefit, but there is resistance to change.
Since rescheduling school hours nationally will not be done in the next few weeks, we need some answers now.
So how can you and the kids prepare for the shock of back-to-school? Most people simply resort to stimulants; and coffee does not deserve the tainted reputation it has. But some prefer a less drastic way to jump-start the body. Maybe start by having a few family dinners at the same time every night and encouraging the kids to head to bed at a reasonable hour.
If you want to try something that works with the body’s clock, remember that people’s internal clocks are set by light exposure, specifically light resembling sunlight. You can find bulbs at your local aquarium or plant store. Try to give the kids’ faces a good dose of light when they first wake up. That will help reset their internal clocks. Melatonin is also recommended the night before to help the body get ready for sleep.
Getting the blood sugar leveled out is a little simpler. Eat breakfast of some type. Buy a whole-grain cereal, toss some blueberries in, and you have a veritable nutritional and antioxidant party. If it’s too early for such culinary festivities, try some Go-gurt (yogurt in a squeeze tube – no technical eating skill needed), or an instant breakfast.
Good luck, and take care.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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