for New Pittsburgh Courier
Have you ever gotten frustrated with a teenager who wants to go to bed late and sleep until late in the morning? Does the teen always seem to want sleep—except at night? In those moments of frustration, remember that teens’ sleep patterns are a result of their age, biology and internal clocks.
Sleep is fuel for our bodies; everyone needs it. Sleep does not just help us feel better. Research shows that getting enough sleep is necessary for our overall health, too. Being well-rested helps us fight illness, be at a healthy weight, lower our risk for serious health problems, like diabetes and heart disease, reduce stress, make good decisions and get along better with people. Teens experience the same health benefits from getting enough sleep, but their sleep patterns change.
“There are marked changes that occur in sleep and in circadian rhythms, especially postpuberty and during adolescence,” said Brant P. Hasler, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry, School of Medicine, of psychology, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, and of clinical and translational science, University of Pittsburgh. “The timing of sleep changes for adolescents in that they increasingly prefer and pursue both later bedtimes and later wake-up times. We know that that’s driven in part by changes in their circadian rhythms.”
A circadian rhythm is a 24-hour internal clock that regulates our sleep/wake cycles, along with many other processes in our brain and body, including temperature, cardiovascular function, and digestion. The circadian rhythm is always running in the background of our brains and is controlled by a portion of the brain called the hypothalamus. In recent years, researchers have found that the molecular basis of our clocks, the molecular clock, is not just in that central clock but is in essentially every cell of our bodies.
“One way to think about it is that the central clock is the conductor, but there’s this orchestra of clocks that are throughout other parts of our brain, our body and in every organ and tissue,” said Dr. Hasler. Making sure this orchestra is playing in tune is very important to health. Many research studies have shown that there are various negative health effects—including problems with mood, metabolism and cardiovascular health—when different clocks are no longer in time with one another.”
Researchers know that teens’ internal clocks change and cause them to not feel sleepy until later at night, which makes them want to sleep in later. Even though their internal clocks may be shifting later, teens still need between eight and 10 hours of sleep a night to feel well-rested. Dr. Hasler notes that the problem is that only around one-third of adolescents report sleeping that long every night, especially during the school week.
“The problem is that teens typically have some of the earliest school start times they’ve ever experienced,” said Dr. Hasler. “This happens at the same time as their internal clocks are telling them to go to sleep later than ever, so there’s a mismatch. During the school week, they’re trying to go to bed earlier than their internal clock is telling them to and may have trouble falling asleep as a result. Then they have to get up well before their internal clock is ready. Thus, they end up getting fewer hours of sleep than they need. On the weekend, they tend to change their schedule by going to bed later and sleeping in to try to make up the sleep they’ve lost during the week. But we know that it’s not possible to make up for five days of insufficient sleep in only two days.”
Teens are essentially living in a school time zone and a weekend time zone and bouncing back and forth between them. Researchers’ term for this is “social jet lag.” Research is showing that the effects of social jet lag are similar to those of regular jet lag, which we know has all sorts of effects on health. The difference is that teens are doing this chronically, week in and week out. Dr. Hasler is examining social jet lag in detail in a study called “Social Jet Lag in Teens.” (For more information about Dr. Hasler’s studies or to find out how to participate, see the contact information elsewhere on the page.)
Though some school districts are experimenting with later start times—the current recommendation from many major medical organizations is for schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later—many schools still start before 8 a.m. The general recommendations for helping teens to get as much sleep as possible are to turn off devices earlier, wearing “blue blockers” in the evenings (blue light can suppress the production of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin; blue blockers are glasses that block the blue light in LED devices), keeping a more regular sleep schedule the entire week and being aware of the internal clock issue.
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