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Teenagers don’t get enough sleep. Studies show that they need at least 9 hours of sleep each night for optimal functioning. However, sometime during the emergence of adolescence, teens’ biological clocks become confused, causing many sleep problems. The biological clock regulates the basic functions of all living creatures. Located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus, this bundle of nerve cells in the hypothalamus controls many behavioral and physiological patterns in a 24-hour cycle (circadian rhythm).
Sleep Cycles Gone Haywire?
This segment of the brain is responsible for managing cycles of sleep, hunger, thirst, temperature, and breathing, which it does by excreting hormones that communicate with the body. This well-oiled mechanism is highly responsive to environmental changes, such as darkness and light. However, it is also sensitive to internal changes, and with the onset of puberty, can wreak havoc on physical and mental health during adolescence, particularly by altering sleep patterns.
In a study conducted by Pasquale Alvaro, of the University of Adelaide, Australia, data indicates that insomnia (the inability to fall asleep and stay asleep) in adolescence can exacerbate risk factors and behaviors associated with depression and anxiety. Co-existing neurobiological, psychological, and social problems stem from this relationship, and when heightened, can lead to acute insomnia. Although independent connections were not identified, Alvaro also found that teenagers with overlapping sleep and depression issues typically struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobias, and separation anxiety. Combined with other risk factors, such as drug and alcohol use, and these factors can become a cocktail for disaster.
Teenagers More Sensitive?
Experts speculate that excess hormones released by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus interfere with sleep cycles. Hormonal imbalances could also lead to sleep issues. In fact, girls are 2.5 times more likely to develop insomnia associated with their first menstrual cycles. Girls are also at an increased risk for developing insomnia over boys. Moreover, too much TV, texting, and video games can make teens lose sleep, according to a study published in BJM Open. The report from Uni Research Health, Bergen, Norway, reveals that increased screen time has begun to negatively affect their natural circadian rhythms, and changes to teenagers’ brains may make them especially vulnerable. Both frequency of screen time and time of day during use correlated to teens’ inability to fall asleep.
Human chronotypes fluctuate throughout life. A person’s chronotype describes their preference or likelihood to be active during particular parts of the day. Teenagers typically demonstrate an “eveningness” chronotype. This trait means that they are more active during the evening hours, which is also an independent risk factor for depression. Whatever hormonal or personality fluctuations exist within the teenage brain is still unknown, but a change occurs that sets their biological clock to go to bed later and wake up later. Regrettably, school schedules don’t make allowances for this biorhythmic change, and instead of sleeping until 11 a.m., teenagers are waking up at 6 a.m., losing valuable sleep. Being overtired, along with insufficient structure at home, can lead teens to experience many sleep issues, which only perpetuate the inability to go to sleep.
Investigations have not yet identified the exact reasons for changes in adolescent sleep patterns; however, the concern over sleep issues during adolescence is serious, as it may lead to a host of problems. The scientific community has already identified a relationship between insomnia and psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Insomnia affects about 11% of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 16. Further, studies indicate that 94% of teens have reported that they have difficulty sleeping for more than two nights per week. These trends are alarming, because insomnia is a symptom of depression. Adversely, insomnia may also be a precursor to developing depressive symptoms.
What Should You Do?
One of the most important factors to deal with first is the possible presence of anxiety and/or depression. Talking about stress and its effects on health is crucial. Give teenagers healthy alternatives to relieve stress, such as physical activity, joining a social group, or taking on a new hobby. Not all stressors lead to mental illness, but if serious symptoms exist, seek immediate professional help. Offering structure at home is also essential to providing teenagers opportunities to sleep. Sleep hygiene consists of a healthy diet, setting bed times, and putting aside electronics for up to one hour before bed. The use of black-out curtains may be necessary to provide their embattled circadian rhythms an ally. Meditation and other relaxation techniques may also help teens find the rest they need, and this may be a good opportunity for family bonding. But don’t be surprised if these young adults scoff at the idea of meditating with Mom.
Above all, take sleep seriously and be aware of the changing rhythms inside teenagers. A good night’s sleep can buy more than just a happy teen, it can buy a healthy one.
- Melissa Lavery, M.S.
Screen time may damage teens' sleep. (2015, February 3). Retrieved February 6, 2015, from http://www.lifescript.com/health/news/reuters/2015/02/03/screen_time_may_damage_teens_sleep.aspx
Sleepless Nights Common Among Teens. (2004, June 10). Retrieved February 6, 2015, from http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/20040610/sleepless-nights-common-among-teens
Teenage Insomnia Part I. (n.d.). Retrieved February 6, 2015, from http://www.insomnia-free.com/teenage-insomnia.html
Peters, B. (2014, February 18). Definition of Suprachiasmatic Nucleus. Retrieved February 6, 2015, from http://sleepdisorders.about.com/od/sleepglossarypz/g/Suprachiasmatic_Nucleus.htm
University of Adelaide. (2014, July 30). Teen insomnia linked with depression, anxiety. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 6, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140730093516.htm