THE BLOG
08/25/2010 11:49 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Lack of Sleep is a Nightmare for Teens

Over the years, I have noticed an increasing problem in many of my teen patients: sleep deprivation. Sara, for one, is a very good student and active in extracurricular activities. Recently, she made an appointment because, of late, she had been feeling more tired then usual. The first inquiry I made was to ask her to run through her daily activities.

"I get up at 4:30am to be at water polo practice. After practice I have an early 7am AP class. After school, we practice until 7pm or have a game until 9pm. I have a quick dinner, go to my room, and do homework until midnight or 1am."

"You do this every night?" I exclaimed!

"No, I sleep in on Saturday's and Sunday's if I can." She answered. "But too often I need the weekend to catch up on homework, or I have to study for a test, and I don't get to bed until 4 or 5 am," she concluded.

No wonder she is sick and feeling rundown. I would feel that way too.

After conducting a basic work-up, I reassured Sara that the only thing wrong with her was that she was burning the candle at both ends and not getting the proper amount of sleep.

This is a national problem with teens, as illustrated by a recent article by Marissa Cevallos of the San Jose Mercury News. Ms. Cevallos recounts research that shows teens do not do well on morning tests because their brains are not fully awake. She also states that Kansas teens involved in car crashes are attributed to being drowsy in over 15% of accidents.

Sleep deprivation can be deadly!

I revealed to Sara that sleep is one of the most important elements of staying healthy and that teenagers like her could require anywhere from 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night.

As with most teens, she said that this was impossible. With all of her activities and homework, she didn't have the time to sleep.

She became more receptive to the importance of sleep, however, when I shared these insights with her:

People who get less sleep than their bodies require function poorly at work and school. They may think they are accomplishing a lot but, in reality, they are not. Without a good rest, they lack the ability to think clearly and avoid wandering thoughts.

Lack of this necessary rest makes one susceptible to illness or feelings of sluggishness throughout the day.

Irritability, mood swings, and even weight gain has been attributed to sleep deprivation.

Participation in competitive sports is hindered because the body does not receive the proper amount of time to refresh and re-energize.

Sara left my office with the knowledge that she could maximize not only her academics but also her performance in the pool by simply getting more sleep. This alleviated some of her unease. She craved more sleep but was under the false premise that getting the proper amount of sleep would cause her to perform poorly in her classes and be less competitive (due to lack of study time).

Many of us are under the same misguided notion as Sara. We assume that by spending more hours awake we are somehow more efficient and that by going to bed early, we would be wasting valuable time on a frivolous activity.

Quite the contrary! Thank goodness we are becoming more aware of the value of sleep and the effects of sleep deprivation. As mentioned by Ms. Cevallos, some people have attempted to remedy the problem.

School districts have taken under consideration the possibility of starting the school day thirty minutes to an hour later than now, but at the same time, they are also aware that this may lead to problems at the other end with extracurricular activities eating their way into the night.

Colleges have recently become aware of this phenomenon, noting that a young adult's natural sleep cycle, or circadian rhythm, often calls for both more hours of sleep and later starts to the day. Administrators realized that many students were not showing up for early classes or they were too groggy to learn anything, so many universities have taken steps to limit the number of classes before 9am. (Of course, one of the major advantages of college over high school is the ability to pick courses to fit a particular sleep cycle.)

Now that she knows how important sleep is, I hope that Sara will schedule it into her daily routine.

With so many teenagers dealing with sleep deprivation, however, perhaps schools can take matters into their own hands to find ways to reduce the load for their students, and maybe parents and teenagers can decide among themselves to drop that extra activity, group, or club, as I've written about previously.