Did you know that teenagers need a lot of sleep, but rarely get enough? Grown adults need 7-8 hours of sleep but the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep for teens, though studies show that 87% of high schoolers get less than this on school nights. So the common site of a “lazy” teen languishing on the sofa or nodding off in class is the result of true sleep deprivation.

Typically teens have completed growth to adult height, but organs like the heart and lungs have not increased enough in size to oxygenate and circulate functions within the larger body. This leads to fatigue, upping the sleep needs. But biology serves up a cruel twist upon teens. Their biorhythms change, causing a shift to a later sleep cycle.

Usually, beginning at puberty, the sleep/wake cycle shifts to about 2 hours later making it difficult for most adolescents to fall asleep before 11 pm. The result is inability to start sleeping until later, but their school day starts earlier than it did in middle school. Extracurricular activities like band or sports often hold practices in the morning before the school day, further shortening the chance for a good night’s sleep. If a teen can’t fall asleep until midnight but the day starts at 5:30 am or the school bus comes at 7 am, they easily are short 3-4 hours of sleep.

What happens next? The tired teen may skip breakfast in order to squeeze in a few more winks in the morning. The brain then has no fuel to run on. First period high school teachers will report how hard it is to teach to a group of bleary-eyed zombies staring back, some of who actually nod off. There is a hormone in the body called ghrelin which is released when the body lacks sleep. This hormone increases appetite, so the poorly rested teens feel hungry and often overeat. Lack of sufficient sleep has been found through research to contribute to obesity. According to the Center for Disease Control about a third of all teens are obese putting them at risk for chronic diseases now or later in life.

Service project commitments and volunteer work are incremental to the academic work load of teens as they strive to build impressive resumes for colleges, and the combined effect is youths in our society that are exhausted at the same time they are expending huge amounts of energy. Then there is the constant electronic attraction of social media on cell phones for texting, gaming, Snapping, and the like, creating a risk for attaining healthy sleep. How? The more time spent on stimulating electronic devices like cell phones, tablets, and video gaming systems, the more wired the brain gets, and the more unlikely the brain can unwind when it is time to sleep.

Also, the blue light waves emitted from electronic devices have been found to interfere with the ability to drift off to sleep. If you ask teens to cut back their screen time, they will tell you they neeeed all their devices. Most teens keep cell phones on in their bedrooms and can be awakened when friends text or call, interrupting their sleep and requiring them to fall asleep again. Parents find their kids asleep with a cell phone in hand. Waiting for that last comment or response, they drift off but sleep is not as deep when we are partially connected or awaiting arousal.

My 15 year old niece told me she has to sleep with her cell phone because it is her alarm clock. When I told her she could leave her cell phone charging somewhere out of her bedroom and use an alarm clock, she said “if the power goes out I’ll oversleep”. This fear of oversleeping exists because the biorhythms dictate that these teen night owls should be snoozing later in the morning. When I told my niece that alarm clocks have batteries that compensate for power outages she stared at me in amazement.

So what can be done to improve the health of our tired teens? In my work as a nurse practitioner I counsel my patients about what is called “sleep hygiene”, which consists of practices that facilitate better sleep. Here are my typical tips:

  1. Do something very active that wears you out physically. If you can do sports through school, do it. If you can just shoot baskets on your own or dance in your room to music you like, do that. Stop all electronic device usage about 1-2 hours before your bedtime, so for a desired bedtime of 10 or 11 pm, stop at 9 pm. This can be really hard to follow. If you are in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship or just have strong social dependence on friends you will need to tell your friends that you will only be available until 9 because you need sleep, or say it is your parent’s rule (which it should be).
  2. Don’t skip breakfast; you need it to wake up and start your metabolism running so that it slows down enough at night to allow sleep.
  3. Drink at least 4 bottles of water during each day; it will keep you hydrated and help with fatigue allowing the body functions to work better.
  4. Sleep in a dark cool room without a television in it. If people in your family or close neighbors are noisy, invest in good earplugs or noise cancelling earphones. The earphones can be used to listen to some relaxing music for a half hour before trying to sleep. Download relaxation exercises if you are having an especially hard time falling asleep, or read a book until drowsy.
  5. If exhausted after school, take a short nap to recharge the brain, but try not to do this every day. If you need a nap, set an alarm for an hour, then get up, move about or take a short walk to regain alertness needed for homework or other responsibilities.
  6. Try not to work during the school week if you don’t have to. There is usually no time for it and you have the rest of your life to work. With school days, homework, and other beneficial activities, working on top of this will lead to skimping on sleep. Plus, the teen years are when people start to separate from family and focus on peer relationships. Socializing with same age people is essential for emotional support and a sense of connection at this age.

In general, health professionals advocate a regular schedule for good sleep habits, meaning going to bed at the same time and rising at the same time. For adults, this is good advice. For teens, they will naturally sleep late on the weekends to make up for all the lost sleep hours during the school week. I think a wise compromise is to follow the advice to not vary the wake up time by much more than 2 hours. However, in my experience, most teens can sleep till noon on Saturday and Sunday and fall asleep easily during the rest of the week if they avoid overstimulation and overtiredness. When sleep is sufficient and restorative we feel better, have more resistance to illness and maintain better moods and resilience to stress. So sleep well teens, and stay healthy.

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Lisa Radville