Generation Sleep Deprived

The situation is dire.

Sleep specialists say adolescents need upwards of ten hours of sleep per night. What are they getting? More like six or seven – and the resulting health consequences are truly frightening. With multiple negative health effects, sleep deprivation is becoming the new hot-button wellness concern for today’s adolescents.

They really do need more sleep

There are a few things to consider before diving into the issue of sleep deprivation. First, in addition to needing more sleep than children or adults (who require eight hours of sleep a night), adolescents experience what experts call a hormonal time shift. As the teen body develops in puberty, hormones course through their body, causing them to stay alert one to two hours longer than adults. While sleep eludes them until late into the evening, screen distractors (smartphones, televisions, computers) can over-stimulate them and keep them awake even longer. This creates what experts call a sleep debt. Second, school might be contributing to this sleep debt. As mentioned, teens don’t feel like falling asleep until later at night. Working in conjunction with the hormonal time shift is the delayed release of melatonin, the sleep hormone, until later in the evening. Of course, most adolescents don’t mind the extra few hours of alertness: motivated students want the time to complete their homework, socialites use the time to communicate on social media, and gamers use the time to dominate on their gaming console. So, they stay up late and schools respond by having the kids come in early for classes. While the biology says that high school shouldn’t begin until at least 9:00 am, most schools start earlier than when students are actually ready to wake up.

When you sleep

Factor in any additional sleep disruptions and it becomes abundantly clear how quickly teens can slip into a state of sleep deprivation – a state that is wrought with trouble. While it may be self-evident to many, it bears emphasizing that sleeping is a restorative and healing activity. While we sleep our brain re-sets, our body rejuvenates and, when we wake up hours later, we’re ready to take on the next day. Experts say we experience two types of sleep every night: non-rapid eye movement (NREM, which accounts for up to 80 per cent of our slumbers) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Both NREM and REM sleep play a role in the five stages of sleep that we cycle through in 90 to 110 minute increments every night. Stage one is characterized by drifting into a kind of half awake, half asleep state. Stage two is a time of light sleep that starts around ten minutes after you drift off and this is where short bursts of brain activity – called sleep spindles – move you deeper into slumber. Stage three and four see you move from moderate sleep to deep sleep. At this point you are sleeping very soundly. From stage one to four, NREM comes and goes, as do dreams. But it is in stage five, when REM sleep and vivid dreaming happens. Take away a smooth transition from one of these phases to the next and the results can be pretty harmful to the average person.

Here are just a few negative side effects of living in a sleep deprived state:

    • A weakened immune system – you strengthen your immune system when you sleep because the body intuitively produces chemicals to ward off infections. A lack of sleep deprives you of these important benefits. Long term sleep deprivation can be directly linked to serious health issues like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
    • Impaired hormone production – hormones like leptin (the hormone that tells you when you’ve eaten enough) and ghrelin (the hormone that stimulates your appetite) maintain their balance with proper rest. Sleep deprivation throws them off, affecting your appetite and digestion, and has since been linked to the growing rate of obesity. Growth hormone also relies on a good night’s sleep. Poor sleeping habits and sleep deprivation can create situations where the pituitary gland is less able to release growth hormones, limiting the proper development, repair and healing of muscles, tissues and cells.
    • Compromised cognitive ability – a lack of sleep leads to an increased likelihood of making poor decisions. Some studies link poor sleep quality to aggression, impulsivity and moodiness. A lack of sleep can lead some teens to turn to alcohol or drugs – both mind altering substances – to combat negative feelings associated with feeling overly tired. In fact, severe sleep deprivation can often be linked to the onset of depression and suicidal ideation.

It’s not really necessary to prepare a laundry list of negative side effects of poor sleep habits. People know that sleep is essential and, when they don’t get enough sleep, they are aware that they are not quite themselves – something that is particularly noticeable when it comes to adolescents. This is why it is important to find a way to honour the need for sleep and rest. This can be accomplished by practicing what the experts call sleep hygiene.

Sleep hygiene

The problem for parents, guardians, teachers and guidance counsellors is finding ways to coax teens into buying into the need for sleep. Like any other impediment to growth, often the individual doesn’t see the problem until it is having a profoundly negative effect on their life. This is particularly difficult for adults who are trying to point to the obvious – “Hey kid, you need some sleep!” – when adolescents are often entrenched in the belief that adults don’t know what they are talking about.

This reduces the delivery of the sleep message to a soft sales pitch. If a parent, guardian, teacher or guidance counsellor can find that sweet spot, and earn the trust of the teen in their life, they can give them some constructive sleep advice. The experts believe the following practices constitute proper sleep hygiene:

  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine – prepare for bed 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime. Do something (take a bath, drink a glass of warm milk, meditate, read a book) that tells you mind that it is time to shut down.
  • Eliminate activities that stimulate your mind just before bedtime – shut down the smartphone, the computer and the TV prior to beginning your bedtime routine. Also, avoid homework, loud music and video games just before going to sleep. The goal is to decrease mental stimulation so that your body realizes that it is time to go to sleep.
  • Eliminate stimulating substances – avoid caffeinated coffee, tea and soft drinks in the evening. Energy drinks are an obvious “no-no.” These substances will, in many cases, keep you awake or wake you up in the middle of the night. Obviously intoxicants (alcohol and drugs) should be avoided because they disrupt many mental and body functions – sleep included. 
  • Follow the same routine every night – Once you’ve established a routine, follow it every night. Support the routine by sleeping in a comfortable bed in a dark room. While this seems obvious, it bears mentioning. If you are trying to eliminate your sleep debt and adjust to a new bedtime, try to go to sleep ten to fifteen minutes earlier every night for about a month to make it stick. Try adding another fifteen minutes of sleep after you have successfully managed a new bedtime and keep adding time until you are at the optimal length of sleep each night.  

All this might be easier said than done. The mind seems to have a mind of its own at times and runaway thoughts can trigger over stimulation that deny people the sound night’s sleep they need. The goal is to create your own sleep hygiene regimen so that you can live a healthy and productive life.  For adolescents, finding a way to bank enough sleep is an essential. This will help to keep them from spiraling into the problematic vortex of sleep debt that can rob them of their mental and physical health.

By Sean Dolan

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