Why we need to sleep (and why, very often, teenagers can’t)

It’s obvious: we all need sleep, from teenagers to teachers. Recent studies, however, suggest that the teenage brain needs more sleep than most because it is still developing. Unfortunately, due to a number of reasons, teenagers the world over – particularly those doing the IBDP – are notoriously sleep-deprived.

Rosanna Montalbano, an OSC IB expert, imparts her wisdom and advice.

Sleep deprivation is BAD for you, not just because it leaves you woozy so that you fall asleep in class and have trouble concentrating. Numerous pieces of research have been conducted on this topic and here are some of the findings.

  • Sleep deprivation can lead to permanent cognitive issues in a developing brain
  • The restorative power of sleep works beneficially on the operation of the LTM (Long Term Memory)
  • Sleep deprivation can cause brain deterioration – according to a 2013 study, which may (in a small way) account for memory loss in seniors
  • Sleep deprivation can lead to bad decision making
  • Sleep deprivation contributes to acne
  • Sleep deprivation can lead to inappropriate and angry behaviour
  • Sleep deprivation can be a reason for weight gain

Unfortunately, according to the National Sleep Foundation in the United States, less than 15 per cent of teenagers get at least 8 1/2 hours of sleep each night, while the recommended amount is 9 1/2 hours. Read more.

Reasons

One of the main reasons for this is a hormone released in the brain calledmelatonin. In the adult brain, it kicks in at around 10:00 or 11:00 p.m.,  making us sleepy. Teenagers’ biological clocks change, their circadian rhythms get altered and melatonin only kicks in around 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.  which is why even the best intentioned teenagers become night-owls.

A second reason for the sorry state of teenagers very early in the morning is that most secondary schools start before 9:00 a.m., which leaves teachers who have to deal with sleepy students in their first class in a state bordering on despair. I used to ask my pupils to please close their eyes if they fell asleep in my early morning TOK class because I knew that they had perfected the art of falling asleep with their eyes open. I always found it very disconcerting to try and teach a classroom full of what virtually amounted to zombies. The fact remains, however, that most teenagers need to be in school before their brains are fully awake and the melatonin has departed their bodies.

So what can be done about this, if we cannot change all school schedules and starting times?

Practical Solutions

  1. Get enough exercise.  Some people recommend at least an hour a day for teenagers, but try not to exercise too close to bedtime because that can “supercharge” you and keep you awake.
  2. Try to go to bed at the same time every night. Creating a sleep routine has been shown to have beneficial effects, by calming you and creating the right environment in which to lay your head on the pillow and . . .  zonk!
  3. Turn off all your electronics – phone, computer, music.  There is nothing that can wake you up more effectively as you are about to drop off than the ping of a message received on your phone.
  4. If you turn down the lights and have a relaxed atmosphere in your bedroom before you go to bed, it can help you unwind.
  5. By the same token, try to avoid games that overexcite you or scary movies before going to bed.  You need to relax before you get under the covers.
  6. Avoid long naps during the day, unless they are absolutely essential.
  7. Avoid pulling “all-nighters.”  Sleep is necessary, so not getting any will not help you: in the short term you will forget vital information for that test you are taking the next day and in the long term it can be really detrimental to the way your brain actually functions.
  8. Avoid the use of stimulants – caffeine is a short tem solution which can have a deleterious effect in the long term.  Try not to have any after midday.
  9. Wake up with bright light. Consider investing in a dawn simulator light. This is a device that slowly increases the light in the room over a period of up to 90 minutes just before you would normally wake up in the morning. Using one can help reset the daily body clock.
  10. Try “square breathing techniques” – breathe in for the count of four, hold for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, hold for a count of four and repeat . . .  until you fall asleep.  If you focus the brain on breathing, chances are that you will forget to worry about that beastly test due in a few days’ time.