What time is it? The answer to this question does not seem to be so obvious: are we governed by our watches? Maybe the time that is imposed on us has some fragile – and even doubtful – grounds. “Although we should adapt to our geography, the time zone of Argentina is a political decision”, says Diego Golombek at the Laboratorio de Cronobiología [Chronobiology Laboratory] of the Universidad Nacional de Quilmes (UNQ). He is a biologist and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). At his lab, which has posters of clocks between the benches used for experiments, he studies the biological rhythms of humans. As part of his work, he’s just launched a national survey to analyze how Argentines sleep. The idea is to obtain useful information that serves as a public tool to debate the time zone in which Argentina should be, among other issues. The scientist explains that this type of changes could improve our sleep, productivity, mood and propensity to get sick.
Exposition to natural light seems to be one of the keys not only to deal with those issues but also to have a restful sleep. “The objective of this study is to make people aware of their biology and its relationship with the environment. If we can also draw conclusions that provide advice, improve and contribute to decide public policies, even better.” With María Juliana Leone, researcher of the Council, and Marina Giménez, from Holland, the scientist designed the “Crono Argentina” survey, which can be filled in from an anonymous platform in around 20 minutes and is addressed to any Argentine older than thirteen years old. The questions range from basic personal information of the population (date of birth, gender, weight, height) to daily preferences and sleep habits. The first data analysis could be ready by the end of 2018.
Sources of inspiration
This will not be the first time in which scientists analyze the sleep of Argentines. There are surveys like the ones of the Observatorio de la Deuda Social Argentina of the Universidad Católica Argentina (UCA), which analyzed about six thousand cases related to sleep variables linked to socioeconomic aspects. The difference of this initiative is aimed at becoming a decentralized and representative sample of all the country.
Crono Argentina is based on previous work performed in other countries: the first similar experiment, the “Human Sleep Project”, was conducted by Till Roendneberg, ten years ago, in Munich. The scientist developed a test to identify chronotypes –morning (lark) or night (owl) people– and then compared the sleep habits on weekends and business days so as to compare some kind of “social jet lag” –which would be the difference between the time of our biological watch and the world’s-. The Sleep Project turned into a German massive database of thousands of cases.
“One simple survey can lead to powerful conclusions: in a small country like Germany, it was found that sleep and social jet lag depend on the photoperiod, the time of sunrise and the change of seasons (east/west). Besides, this examination showed that there is a relationship with some interesting factors such as the consumption of nicotine or obesity. One of the conclusions is linked to the definition of adolescence: time preference moves towards later times and the biological clock at that age looks more like a nigh owl as it tends to move towards the afternoon”, explains Golombek.
Another similar experiment was carried out in Brazil, where experts surveyed the most developed areas of the country, such as the maritime coastline, from Porto Alegre to Natal. “That examination allowed scientists to define changes in sleep and the relationship with chronotypes.”
There are also previous studies conducted by Golombek. They can be used as a base like the one he and his team did in a community of Mapuches in Neuquén. The research team analyzed the correlation of the seasonality and the relocations of the community considering sunlight as reference. The second research started in 2015 with international colleagues in two communities of Tobas in Formosa. The scientists compared the sleep of one community exposed to electric light with the other one without it. “We proved that the ones that have electric light sleep less, have different behavior and organize their life in a different way”.
Taking into account those previous studies, the research team spent about a year to design the questions for Crono Argentina. They used two forms: a classic one for sleep chronotypes (recording asleep and awake times on weekdays and weekends so as to know if the individuals are morning or evening type, etc), and a second one for temporal preferences, more psychological (with questions such as: “If you were invited to play a football game in the morning, how would you feel? Fine, tired?”). The scientists also added some questions related to habits and exposition to sun.
The shoemaker’s son always goes barefooted
Golombek sleeps little. As he writes and works during the silence of the night, the hours of sleep he has do not cover the ideal amount. He wakes up religiously at 5.45 to take his son to the subway. “I tend to sleep less than seven hours, occasionally six, but never eight”. Although he does not have a TV, he uses the computer and cell phone all day, what also interferes with his sleep. “The problem is that some modern screens use the type of LED that stimulates the biological clock. Receiving that light at night misleads the clock”. He never takes naps and does not remember his dreams. Furthermore, he does not suffer from insomnia, except when the following day he has something stressful to do. “There are two types of insomnia. The classic one is obviously when you don’t sleep but the other one involves the lack of perception of sleep: a person that sleeps quite well but feels that doesn’t sleep at all. That happened to my father, who even consulted a physician expert on sleep”. One of the things that keeps me awake is to understand the secrets of the biological clock: that instrument that without chronometer regulates the times of the activities of humans. As it was discovered in the 70s, this clock is located in the brain, specifically in the suprachiasmatic nucleus.
With Crono Argentina, the researcher aims at learning not only about the clock itself, but also about the average clock of the Argentines. “We want to know if there is any geographical correlation: if in the north-south and east-west axis the chronotypes vary. After that, we will relate them with the variables from the survey and the demographical ones: urban and rural populations, big population centers, etc.”, Golombek explains. The goal is to survey one per cent of the population, that is to say, 450 thousand Argentines. “As we obtain tens of thousands well represented geographically we will be able to reach valid conclusions”.
There is no database like this in Argentina and it is important to have it for basic and applied matters. “First because to know about folk or circumstantial matters such as in which parts of the country people sleep more, or less, or take naps, seems to be important so as to turn that information into figures. Beyond that, this could serve to make recommendations about public policies”, Golombek states. That is the objective when they refer to time zone as an example. “For historical reasons, Argentina is in the time zone minus three, but if one analyzes it geographically, it is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, not where it should be. Why? It is necessary to consider the time zone that best adapts to our geography”.
“If you change the time to have more light at night, people eat later so they sleep less and their quality of life decreases. According to one study, we sleep about one or two hours less than fifty or a hundred years ago: that is a lot and the consequences are significant. If people sleep less, there are more accidents, their mood changes, we make more mistakes and get sick more often. Let’s place sleep as one factor of public importance and not only as a possible circumstantial aspect”, the scientist says. So when someone asks us “what time is it?” the answer is only one and convincing: the right time.
To participate in the survey: www.cronoargentina.com
The nap: yes or no?
“The world is divided between those who take a nap and those who do not”, Golombek joked. However, the statement can be true. “At two pm, people are drowsy whether they had eaten or not because it is the moment when alertness decreases, and it is certainly part of the sleep cycle. It is logical to want to rest at that time. But the idea is to take a short nap. If it takes more than one hour, it is counter-productive: something happens in the brain that makes people get up more tired and in a bad mood”, the scientist states and adds “That is possible for those who are used to taking a nap. But if that is not the case, even a short nap can induce tiredness and waking up in a bad mood. The truth is that at that time in which there is an increase in fatigue and a decrease in alertness it is not a good idea to do physical or cognitive-demanding activities”.
By Cintia Kemelmajer
Translation: Cintia B. González