Falling asleep for teens not always as easy as 1, 2, Zzzzzz

Jennifer Davis

You're young and surging with hormones. You feel great, like you can do anything. The last thing in the world you want to do is go to bed.

Bed is for babies, they say. And teens, you should say.

Teens actually need at least nine hours of sleep each and every night - not five hours on school nights and 12 hours on the weekends. But puberty, which resets teenagers' internal clocks - making them naturally want to stay up later - combined with all their studying and socializing is why very few teens are probably getting all the sleep they need.

"I'd say a majority of teenagers in this country don't get enough sleep and a substantial number outside of that have sleep disorders," says Dr. Sarah Nath Zallek, a sleep specialist and neurologist and medical director of the Illinois Neurological Institute's Sleep Center. "Sleep deprivation is rampant among teens."

And it's even worse now than when their parents were growing up.

"The social pressures of teens are enormous. There's sports and activities and school, and sleep can be pushed off, they think. Those social pressures have always been there, but Facebook is 24/7 and everybody's tweeting and texting now," Zallek said.

"I had one teenage girl patient - she said once she could fall asleep her friends would text her all night long."

Zallek says parents sometimes raise their eyebrows when they find out about the all-night texting.

"But I think parents also aren't aware of how much sleep teens need. They think six, seven or eight hours is sufficient.

"Puberty resets the internal clock so the teenage brain is more apt to fall asleep between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. and wake up around 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. rather than the 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. needed for school," Zallek adds. "We understand the circadian changes that occur. We just don't understand why they occur in teenagers."

Some school systems, including, famously, the Minneapolis School District, adjusted their schedule to accommodate teens. The result of later start times, according to the University of Minnesota's research, was "a significant reduction in school dropout rates, less depression and students reported earning higher grades."

Adds Zallek: "We've always seen a fair number of teens (with sleep issues) but probably more over time."

Not getting enough sleep is a big deal. Teens and young adults are a population at high risk of having car accidents related to drowsiness and fatigue. Young drivers age 25 or younger are involved in more than half of all fall-asleep crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And drowsy driving causes over 100,000 crashes nationwide every year.

Sleep-deprived teens are also more prone to illness and, according to new research, perhaps even obesity and diabetes.

"It seems counter-intuitive. You would think that being awake more would burn more calories, but new research shows that people who sleep less tend to gain more weight," says Dr. Zallek. "There isn't an absolute link, but many sleep experts believe that sleep deprivation impairs glucose metabolism, which is directly related to diabetes."

Also, sleep deprivation can lead to irritability, problems in school with retention and even depression.

"Growth hormone is released during sleep," says Zallek. "There are a variety of processes, growing and developing of the brain, that are going on during sleep."

If you're doing everything recommended for a good night's sleep - sticking to a schedule and cutting out distractions, for example - and you still are having trouble, Dr. Zallek suggests seeking out expert help.

The Illinois Neurological Institute's sleep disorders clinic "focuses on the behavioral aspects" of sleep disorders, including narcolepsy, insomnia and sleep apnea.

"Most of these kids don't need sleep tests, but the INI is very child and teen experienced. We are fulltime clinicans in sleep."

Meanwhile, the C. Duane Morgan Sleep Disorders Center through Methodist Medical Center notes that it is was the first accredited sleep center in central Illinois and one of the oldest sleep centers in the U.S.

Jennifer Davis can be reached atjdavis@pjstar.com.