How Much Sleep do Teens Really Need? Hint: A Lot

Is your teen constantly tired, moody and irritable? Does he seem down or even depressed most of the time? Does he catch every cold, flu and tummy bug that comes along?

The culprit may be sleep — or rather, the lack of it — and new research indicates that too little sleep may cause more problems than simply a bit of afternoon drowsiness.

Here’s what you need to know about your teen and sleep.

Sleep Cycles and Circadian Rhythms

For years, scientists have explored the effects of sleep on teens. One common conclusion? That three-quarters of teens experience sleep disorders and problems.

Why are the numbers so high? Blame that old biological clock. Also known as circadian rhythms, the body naturally experiences a sleep-wake cycle over a 24-hour period that’s based on the amount of melatonin in the body, a naturally occuring hormone that regulates sleep. In adults, the sleepy-wakeful cycle generally occurs regularly, with the strongest drive to sleep occurring naturally from 2:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. and again from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. — which explains why you crave that afternoon cup of coffee.

In children, circadian rhythms usually help them get to sleep before 10:00 p.m. and wake refreshed in the morning. However, when puberty strikes, these sleep-wake cycles get a bit off. For teens, this natural cycle results in falling melatonin levels from about 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., which pushes them toward a period of wakefulness right around the time they should be going to sleep. Combine this with a tendency to want to stay up late anyway, and you’ve got a perfect storm of sleep deprivation.

How Much Sleep Does Your Teen Really Need?

A large body of research concludes that teens need at least nine and a half hour of sleep each night, as compared to the seven minimum hours needed by typical adults. In a perfect world, teens would naturally get this much sleep if they went to bed around 10:0 p.m. and woke at 7:30 a.m. — but those pesky circadian rhythms make that ideal schedule difficult.

Adding insult to injury, many teens prefer to stay up late — and sleep in late — on the weekends, which further throws off their natural rhythms and may result in sleep deprivation. In fact, the average teen gets just over seven hours of sleep per night, a number that may lead to a number of unpleasant side effects.

What are the Results of Sleep Deprivation?

Studies show that teens who don’t get enough sleep tend to be at higher risk of a number of health issues. These may include:

  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • Poor eating habits
  • Acne and skin problems
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Moodiness
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Poor academic performance
  • Reduced cognitive ability

Sleep deprivation can even be deadly; driving while drowsy may lead to more accidents and can even be compared to driving drunk. Research shows that going just 17 hours without sleep leads to a decrease in performance that’s equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .005 percent!

In addition, lack of sleep compromises the immune system. A 2014 study found that the fewer hours slept per night, the more likely teens were to come down with a number of illnesses, including strep throat, gastroenteritis, colds, flu and other common infectious illnesses.

How You Can Help Your Teen Get Enough Sleep

The good news is that parents can help their teens get adequate sleep.

  • Use light to send sleep cues; dim lights in the evening, turn them all the way off during sleep time, and turn them up bright in the morning
  • Try to stick to the same sleep schedule all week long — even on the weekends
  • Limit afternoon naps to 30 minutes or less
  • Eliminate caffeine from your teen’s diet
  • Unplug from TVs, computers and video games at night; keep these devices out of your teen’s bedroom and replace screen time with a warm bath or an hour of reading

Though you may feel like you’re fighting a source of nature — because you essentially are — these tips can help your teen get more sleep during this critical period in his development.

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