Teenage Sleep: Myth?


If school could start later it would allow students to get more rest, wake up later, and function more effectively while in school

Lydia Cusick, Staff Writer

You will probably recognize this scene: it’s midnight and a high school junior is sitting at his desk trying to finish his homework after football practice. He knows he only 20 minutes left, but he is exhausted and needs to keep high grades in his AP classes.

Many teenagers have the same problem–not enough sleep. This can be caused by different factors, including the difficulty for teenagers to fall asleep before 11 p.m., caffeine intake, the amount of homework they have, and extracurricular activities.

“There are numerous studies in medical literature that have concluded that teens are not getting enough sleep due to homework, lifestyle choices, and the unrealistic schedules they maintain,” said Richard B Riemer, D.O., a neurologist and the senior associate dean of the Touro University Medical School.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), published by The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine adds to this, “As children progress into their teenage years, they experience delayed patterns of melatonin secretion and a slower buildup of homeostatic sleep pressure during wakefulness.1 These changes reflect a delayed circadian rhythm that contributes to later sleep onset and later morning awakening, with teenagers typically struggling to fall asleep before 11:00 PM.” Teenagers also use technology frequently which contributes to the issue of lack of sleep.

It is important to have enough melatonin, a chemical the body releases to aid sleep, because it is vital in regulating not only sleep but also wakefulness. “Exposure to light, especially blue light emitted by computer screens, TV, iPad, etc. prevents the onset of sleep. It is a neuroendocrine process. The pineal gland in the brain secretes a hormone, melatonin. One function of melatonin is to help regulate our circadian or biological rhythm. Exposure to light stops the release of melatonin…you need a couple of hours after you turn off the device to allow melatonin levels to rise,” Reimer said.

So, what is the ideal amount of sleep? Generally, adolescents should get a “minimum of 8 hours of sleep, preferably 9/10 hours,” said Glenn. R. Anderson, M.A., LMFT of the Linder Psychiatric Group.

Teenagers need to maintain a consistent sleep schedule and to have enough sleep. “A consistent sleep cycle is important for a mentally healthy outlook on life. In my practice, teens that do not get enough sleep usually present with a blunt affect,” Anderson said. A blunt affect is when a person is unable to show the usual or expected amount of emotion when responding to stimulation.

Sleep deprivation is commonly seen in teenagers, and it can become a serious problem. It is very important not only to be more alert during daytime hours, but also because of the underlying purpose of sleep.

Sleep is a restorative cycle, it is necessary to cleanse the body and maintain normal cognitive functions. It is also the body’s way to remove toxins. “These toxins are waste proteins, metabolic byproducts, and they build up during waking hours. Cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases during sleep to help wash the toxins away. These toxins, over time, can lead to neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease,” Reimer said.

Caffeine intake also affects sleep. “Research has shown that caffeine sits in the receptor sites that melatonin would typically reach throughout the day. This may be part of the cause of the slower build up of melatonin,” said Michele Mariscal, Prevention Specialist of Schools Insurance Authority (SIA).

There are many effects of lack of sleep on the body. “Inadequate sleep by itself causes a metabolic slowdown as the body tries to conserve resources that may be needed. The hormones related to hunger and satiety, -ghrelin and leptin,- are adversely affected and create more hunger and overeating which lead to weight gain,” Mariscal said.

Other effects of sleep deprivation include “poor school performance, obesity, metabolic dysfunction and cardiovascular morbidity, increased depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, risk-taking behaviors, athletic injuries, and increased motor vehicle accident risk,” according to the AASM.

There are also neurological changes that result from sleep deprivation. “The amygdala–where we store patterns of fear or discomfort–becomes more active causing us to react more negatively, and the hippocampus,-the site that is active in storing new memories,-is impaired making it very difficult for students to take in and recall new information,” Mariscal said.

Due to the fact that teenagers have a later onset of sleep, the AASM believes that school should start later. Studies have shown that teenagers should get 8 to 10 hours of sleep optimally. If they have difficulty falling asleep before 11 p.m., and most schools start at 8 a.m. or earlier, it is difficult for a student to get enough sleep to function effectively.

In addition, many students have busy schedules and extracurricular activities causing them to come home late and start their homework late. This means that their sleep schedule is set later, but the start of school stays the same. As result, students are not getting enough sleep, and many fall asleep in class and have trouble paying attention and focusing.

This, however, is not the case for Chinmayi Balusu, a sophomore at Vista del Lago High School. Balusu manages to get 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep each night while balancing three AP classes, she studies for 4 to 5 hours each night, and she has time for extracurricular activities, including soccer and taekwondo.

“I don’t think that school should start later. I think that students should go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier,” Balusu said.

Although Balusu does not get the optimal 10 hours of sleep, she proves that it is possible to handle a full schedule and have a reasonable amount of sleep.

If teenagers want to get more sleep, then they can be more efficient when they work, reduce caffeine intake, and stay off all electronic devices at least an hour before going to bed.