Earlier this month the Nobel Prize committee gave its award for Medicine or Physiology to three Americans, Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young, for their work in the study of circadian rhythms—the key to understanding the patterns of rest and wakefulness in all living things.
The scientists discovered that there are specific proteins in living organisms—from plants to microbes to humans and blue whales—which regulate our cycles of sleep. The medical and scientific implications of this discovery are massive and wide-reaching. The committee writes that “[our] well-being is affected when there is a temporary mismatch between our external environment and this internal biological clock, for example when we travel across several time zones and experience ‘jet lag’.”
The danger, in other words, isn’t just psychological. Poor sleep habits—not unknown to most students here at St Andrews or in higher education in general—have immediate and serious physiological ramifications. Our circadian rhythms help control the release of certain hormones and chemicals, regulate blood pressure, and raise or lower body temperature. In other words, by not maintaining these rhythms, we open ourselves up to some serious and potentially long term damage.
Students at many top universities tend to have bad sleep habits formed over years of late-night studying. Between the demands of academic courses, maintaining a social life, and participating in extracurricular activities and societies, it often feels as if there aren’t enough hours in the day to get the hours of sleep that we’re supposed to. If the threat of poor grades or increased stress isn’t enough, we would be smart to heed the advice of scientists and medical professionals who are warning us more and more consistently that there are serious medical consequences to inadequate sleep.
The Nobel Prize committee cited specifically the growing and “dynamic” field of research in circadian rhythms spawned by the release of the award-winning study. No doubt the new discoveries in this emerging science will be fascinating: just don’t stay up too late reading about them.