The epiphany came in an unlikely spot: a darkened auditorium at the National Institutes of Health during a conference on the link between mind and body. As I sat elbow-to-elbow with some of the country's foremost researchers watching a slide presentation on the harmful effects of missing just a few hours of sleep, a light went on in my head: It had taken thousands of dollars for teams of scientists to prove what mothers have always known, what my mother used to tell me, and what I hear myself repeating to my three sons: You need a good night's sleep.
Call that common sense if you will. But the many words of wisdom that our mothers impart (Eat your vegetables, honey, and don't leave the house without breakfast, dear) have served as a kind of survival guide for centuries.
Mothers' lore has a tough audience in our modern age of skepticism, though. It seems we're reluctant to believe anything until it's backed by data and graphs and comes out of presentations in some darkened auditorium. That's why it was such a revelation for me to realize how many recent scientific discoveries were proof of something I already knew--or should have known, if only I'd listened to what Mom said. . . .
That's not to question the merit of recent studies. The new findings about sleep, presented by University of Chicago professor Eve Van Cauter, were solid. They showed that sleeping just six hours a night for six days--and who hasn't tried that a few times?--wreaked havoc with the endocrine systems of healthy young adults. They were temporarily placed in a pre-diabetic state with blood sugar levels usually seen only in people decades older. The surprise to me was that their body chemistry had changed in less than a week. I can almost hear Mom saying, "I told you so!"
Nor am I suggesting that a mother's adages are any match for the scientific rigor of this new research. But as it turns out, the wisdom mothers have been meting out is proving to be strikingly accurate--not just about sleep but about eating, exercise and more. That has become clearer as scientists (many of them mothers, of course) measure minute amounts of everything from so-called phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables to the molecules that affect our emotions.
So, much as it irks me (the daughter) to admit it, and heartens me (a medical writer and the mother of three sons) to recognize it, there's a message here. In recent years the nation has been battling a health epidemic that's at least partly self-inflicted. We're becoming dependent on stimulants such as caffeine to keep us going. Obesity is on the rise. And science is showing why, more often that not, we'd have fewer of these problems if we only stuck to Mom's age-old advice.
Take a look at the evidence. Given that few teenagers get the sleep they need--9 1/4 hours a night, according to Brown University sleep researcher Mary Carskadon--it's no surprise to find them reaching for the most widely used drug in the world: caffeine. For kids, that generally comes in the form of soft drinks. Seventy-eight percent of 14-year-old girls and 85% of 14-year-old boys consume soft drinks daily, according to the Department of Agriculture. Even younger kids have the habit: More than half of 8-year-olds and 70% of 9- to 13-year-olds drink soda daily.
Growing scientific evidence shows that soft drinks contribute to caffeine dependence and may cause the premature bone loss that leads to osteoporosis. There's also a link between non-diet soft drinks and obesity. One Harvard study showed that children who drank soda consumed almost 200 more calories daily than those who didn't.
That behavior would have been anathema to my mother, who saved soda for special occasions.
I could just hear Mom's voice when I read last year's version of the government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommended that consumers choose "beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars. . . . Take care not to let soft drinks or other sweets crowd out other foods you need to maintain health, such as low-fat milk or other good sources of calcium. . . . Drink water often."
The dietary guidelines addressed another subject near and dear to mothers' hearts: regular exercise. In winter, my mother bundled us up and sent us to the park to ice skate and sled. In summer, we rode our bikes, ran through sprinklers and played kickball. "Go play," she'd urge. It wasn't pure altruism, of course. Exercise kept us out of her hair while she caught up on household chores and tired us out so we'd sleep at night.
Few children walk to school and, according to the latest Annenberg Public Policy Center report, youngsters spend a whopping 4 1/2 hours per day parked in front of some screen: television, computer or video game. This sedentary living is taking a toll. Just look at the increase in diabetes and heart disease. Sudden cardiac deaths among teenagers and young adults jumped by about 10% from 1989 to 1996, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Here again, research proves what mothers have known all along: A recent report in Nature magazine found that keeping moderately active with a wide variety of activities brings greater health benefits than intensive workouts at the gym.
Where mothers may have been most prescient, however, is with--what else?--food. Mothers have cajoled, threatened and bribed us to eat our vegetables. They've told us to limit sweets. They've tried to teach us to cook. And is there anything that puts a smile on a mother's face faster than having her family enjoying a meal together? I know. I've been on both ends of the serving spoon.
But do we listen to her kitchen-table wisdom? No. Americans pop vitamins instead of sitting down to well-rounded meals. We patronize fast-food restaurants instead of cooking at home, and we eat in our cars, at our desks and almost anywhere but the dining room table. We fall so short of the recommended five servings a day of fruits and vegetables that the National Cancer Institute spent $8 million last year in its decade-long campaign to get us to eat more of them.
When mothers urged us (for free!) to eat more fruits and vegetables, they were on the right track for reasons that scientists are just beginning to understand. Not only do fruits and vegetables have important vitamins and minerals, they also contain those phytonutrients--substances such as lutein and lycopene--that seem to promote good eyesight and protect against cancer.
The value of a nightly, home-cooked meal together as a family is so strong that a number of countries, including Argentina, Japan, India and Venezuela--though not the United States--underscore the importance of cooking at home and eating with family members as part of their official dietary guidelines.
"Where have they been?" I can hear Mom saying.