Whoever came up with the idea of sleeping should get an ovation, lying down, of course.

Sleep is the greatest invention ever. Sleep is so wonderful I only wish I could stay awake to truly enjoy it. In nature there are animals that don't need a regular repose, such as a shark, but then maybe that is why no one likes swimming with them. Don't take my word for how desirable sleep is; any mother of a newborn can write a whole book about the importance of sleep, but most are too tired to do it.

Sleep is so important there are now specially trained doctors and technicians who stay awake just to help others so they don't have to. They hook you up to a tangle of wires and film your slumber. They measure brain activity, oxygen levels in the blood, muscle movement and jerks, breathing patterns and rates, eye movement, snoring, the whole gamut. The only thing they don't test is the content of your dreams.

People with sleep disorders have a bushel basket full of associated problems. Inadequate sleep is a contributor to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and general irritability. Little sleep is seen with depression, poor work performance and memory loss or even heart failure. The list goes on. Of course there is the usual lack of energy, but fatigue is slightly different that sleepiness. Sometimes it just plain hurts.

I can remember as an intern and pediatric resident being up days and nights and other long days and how the lack of sleep began to be physically painful and dangerous. The sleepiness isn't a sharp pain but more of a dull ache throughout the whole body. No sleep is just not good for the human body.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his massive tome "The Gulag Archipelago," described the Soviet political prison camp practice of sleep deprivation as one of the most severe forms of torture. So how come we are torturing ourselves with more drive-throughs until near dawn, and all-night stores and movies?

There are numerous conditions linked with too little sleep. Some people have suggested that the lack of sleep is the sole explanation for the inexplicable behavior of all teenagers. The majority, if not all, of their idiosyncrasies can be traced directly back to the fact they and their parents get no sleep. What I don't understand, then, is why society and school officials purposely exacerbate that condition by having adolescents go to school in the predawn darkness. I can't imagine teachers enjoy getting up before the sun just to lecture to snoring, dozing high school students. However, it is true that semicomas do cut down on acting out.

It makes no sense, however, to spend our hard-earned tax dollars to send kids to school before they wake up. I have even heard of schools that, instead of starting later, will rotate the first class of the day so the sleeping and snoring are evenly distributed between subjects. Adjustments like that are the proverbial parked ambulances at the bottom of the cliff instead of having a fence at the top. Keeping kids in bed is better than having them fall out of their seats. Just like patterning a school year after planting and the harvest, holding classes before 9 a.m. is reminiscent of having everyone up for milking. It was great for the 18th and 19th centuries, but doesn't make sense for the technologies and demands of the 21st.

Limits exist on the number of hours a trucker can truck, a pilot can pilot and how long student doctors can doctor. In the olden days when men where men and giants walked the earth, there were no such restrictions, and patients paid the price. I remember writing an order for 10 times the proper dose of a drug for a child in the hospital on the day after the night after the day I was on call. It was only with the sharp eyes of an awake clerk that I didn't do any harm.

It is the same with teenage students. Early to bed and reasonable to rise makes a student healthy, the economy wealthy and parents wise.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected].

There are numerous conditions linked with too little sleep. Some people have suggested that the lack of sleep is the sole explanation for the inexplicable behavior of all teenagers.