5 Scary Health Effects Of Sleep Deprivation During The Teen Years

90 percent of teens are sleep deprived -- and the health costs could be significant.
Teen Dreams
Teen Dreams

Sleep loss can take a devastating toll on the mind and body at any stage of life, from early childhood to older adulthood. But for teenagers, who are at a critical stage of development, skipping out on sleep can be particularly dangerous.

″[Sleep deprivation] is extremely detrimental at all stages of life,” Dr. Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist, told The Huffington Post in an email. “In the teen years, when development continues ... the sleep deprivation effects of brain and body development are significant.”

Though sleep is arguably most critical during the teen years, teenagers are the least likely of any age group to be getting sufficient rest. About 87 percent of American high school students are chronically sleep-deprived, according to a 2006 survey from the National Sleep Foundation.

While the National Institutes of Health estimates that teenagers need at least nine hours of sleep per night, only 9 percent of high school students are actually meeting these recommendations. Even more alarming is the fact that a whopping 20 percent are getting by on less than five hours per night.

A number of biological and lifestyle factors converge to wreak havoc on a teenager’s sleep schedule. Late bedtimes, increasing technology dependence and high stress levels ― plus early school start times ― are a recipe for chronic sleep deprivation and the health risks that come along with it.

“Teens are biologically predisposed to stay up later at night and sleep later in the morning,” Breus wrote in a recent Huffington Post blog. “This shift in teens’ sleep-wake cycle, which is a normal part of development, can make a 9 or 10 p.m. bedtime difficult.”

Over time, that late-to-bed, early-to-rise sleep schedule can lead to a number of health risks. Here are some of the physical and mental health risks associated with sleep loss during the adolescent years that both parents and teens should be aware of.

1. Mental health issues

A study of nearly 28,000 suburban high school students, published earlier this year in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, found that each hour of lost sleep is associated with a 38 percent increased risk of feeling sad or hopeless and a 58 percent increase in suicide attempts. Teens who sleep an average of six hours per night are also three times more likely to suffer from depression, a 2010 study found.

“Sleep deprivation and depression go hand in hand among teenagers,” the study’s lead author Mahmood Siddique, a sleep medicine specialist at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, told CNN in 2010. “Instead of giving them medications, I’d rather give them a chance to sleep better, and more.”

A parent’s intervention could make a difference. Research has shown that young people whose parents set early bedtimes for them are significantly less likely to suffer from depression or to have suicidal thoughts.

2. Issues with learning and behavior

Roughly one in four teens goes to bed after 11:30 p.m. on weeknights, and those who do tend to perform worse at school and experience greater emotional distress. Younger teens who don’t get enough sleep are also more likely to be inattentive, impulsive, hyperactive and oppositional.

It should come as no surprise that teens who aren’t getting enough sleep won’t be at their best academically or behavior-wise.

“We know that sleep deprivation makes teens more emotional and perform worse on cognitive tasks and testing,” Breus said.

Why? Sleep supports brain processes that are critical to learning, memory and emotion regulation. At night, the brain reviews and consolidates information that’s acquired during the day, making that information easier to later retrieve.

3. Substance use and abuse

The relationship between sleep loss and substance abuse in teens is a two-way street, with sleep deprivation increasing the risk of drug use and dependence, and drug use in turn fueling sleep troubles.

One study found that for every 10 minutes later that a teenager went to bed, there was a 6 percent increase in the chance they’d used alcohol or marijuana in the past month, while other research showed that sleep difficulties predicted substance-related issues like binge-drinking, drinking and driving, and risky sexual behavior.

4. Higher risk of obesity

Losing sleep can also have a long-term negative effect on a young person’s physical health, with poor sleep quality being linked to diabetes and obesity risk for teens.

High school students who skimp on sleep may be at a higher risk of diabetes and obesity in adulthood, and among teens who are already obese, not getting enough sleep can increase the risk of later developing diabetes.

Among teens already suffering from diabetes, losing sleep can exacerbate their health issues. Research has shown that teens with Type 1 diabetes may have more trouble getting to sleep, and that sleeplessness, in turn, causes greater difficulties regulating blood sugar and controlling behavior.

5. Dependence on sleep and anxiety medications

While prescription sleep aids aren’t approved for use among people under the age of 18, many teens are being prescribed medication like Ambien and Lunesta ― the long-term effects of which are still largely unknown.

But one short-term effect to be aware of is the risk of prescription pill abuse. A study last year found that teens who are prescribed sleeping pills or anxiety medication, which can be highly habit-forming, are 12 times more likely to abuse those medications than teens without a prescription.

“Sleeping pills are generally NOT a good idea for teens,” Breus said.

What parents can do

So what’s a parent to do? Educating teens and creating a family sleep schedule is a start, according to Breus.

“If parents can explain how sleep will effect grades, sports, activities ... it makes it easier,” Breus said. “Next, they should sit down with their kids and create a sleep schedule that everyone can live with.”

This story has been updated to include a new source that references a statistic on chronic sleep deprivation in teens.

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