Dealing With Teen Sleep Deprivation

by | Jul 22, 2015

The urge teens feel to stay up later isn’t completely driven by late-night movies, web surfing and hanging out with friends. Naturally changing circadian rhythms play a strong role.

Younger children tend to feel sleepy between 8 and 10 p.m. because the pineal gland releases melatonin (the hormone that regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle) early in the evening. But as children hit puberty, between the ages of 10 and 14, their bodies and brains go through myriad changes, including a delayed release of melatonin, usually 9 to 10 p.m. or later. That means they may have difficulty falling asleep before 11 p.m.

This natural shift, called “sleep phase delay,” can wreak havoc by preventing teens from getting at least nine hours of sleep per night. NINE hours? Yes, sleep researchers say, at least nine hours, preferably 9½ or 10.

Teens whose schedules are crammed with classes, sports, rehearsals, friends and homework may find getting nine or more hours of sleep per night a near impossible feat. One study found that only 15 percent of teens report sleeping at least 8½ hours per night during the week.

But the consequences of teen sleep deprivation are serious, including increased risk of depression, sickness, weight gain and acne. Studies show teens who are sleep deprived don’t learn as well, remember as much, or perform as strongly in sports.

And their risk of car accidents goes up. The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration estimates that every year more than 40,000 injuries, and 1,500 people are killed in the U.S. in crashes caused by drivers who are simply tired. Young people under the age of 25 are far more likely to be involved in drowsy driving crashes. In one survey, half of teens reported driving a car while drowsy over the past year and 15% said they drove drowsy at least once a week.

Here’s an excellent summary article about the teen sleep cycle.

What to do?

Reset Your Body Clock

Though sleep phase delay is a natural part of puberty (lasting for most young people until they’re about 20 years old) researchers have found it IS possible for people to reset their body clocks.

  • Wake early in the morning and expose yourself to bright light for at least 20 minutes. During summer, take a brisk walk outside. During winter, if you live in a region where the sun doesn’t rise until late, sit in front of a bright “sun” lamp for about a half hour early in the morning – or take a morning walk when the sky lightens at 9 or 10 a.m.
  • In the summer, go camping and hiking for a week. Here’s a fascinating article about using nature to reset your body clock.
  • Wear orange goggles at night to block blue light.
  • Try F.lux, free software that helps your computer’s display adapt to the time of the day by gradually screening out blue light as it gets closer to bedtime.

Embrace Healthy Sleep Hygiene

Practicing sleep hygiene is critical during the teen and pre-teen years—and what better time to establish healthy sleep routines to last a lifetime?

  • Wake at around the same time each morning, even on the weekends.
  • Exercise in the morning, ideally outdoors in bright sunshine.
  • Keep bedrooms cool, dark, and free of distracting electronics and pets.
  • Stop watching electronic screens – especially screens close to your face – at least an hour before sleep.
  • Wear orange glasses or use the computer program f.lux (see above) to screen out blue light.
  • Avoid caffeine after noon.

Public Policy

Some school districts have delayed high school start times to align more closely with teen circadian rhythms. Classes start closer to 9 a.m. instead of 7:20 a.m. Check if there’s movement in this direction in your district and join with likeminded families to push for it.

Visit Wellbody Academy‘s hands-on Slumbertorium to learn about circadian rhythms and for more tips on sleep hygiene and sleep-proofing your bedroom.