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The Impact of Sleep on Teen Mental Health

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It's a well-established scientific fact that the body desperately needs sleep to facilitate growth and healing, and getting the correct amount of sleep per night is incredibly important for maintaining optimal mental health.

As your child grows into their adolescence and exhibits all the “normal” and not so normal teenage behaviors, their developing bodies begin to experience changes, not only physically but also emotionally. Alongside those changes comes an increased amount of responsibility and more difficult challenges at school and at home. The result of these combined pressures often makes it difficult for some teens to fall asleep at night.

The Relationship Between Sleep and Mental Health in Teens

Historically, sleep problems have been associated with a number of psychiatric disorders including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Although correlation doesn't always equal causation, recent research indicates that lack of sleep may be more than just a symptom of these disorders -- it might be one of the primary contributing factors.

A research study carried out at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and published in Word Psychiatry found that depression and suicidal thoughts were just as common in teens with poor sleep habits as those who engaged in risky behaviors. Another study conducted by the University of Texas Health Science Centre found teens were four times as likely to be depressed if they were sleep deprived.

So, is lack of sleep causing these disorders, or are the disorders making it difficult for the person to get adequate sleep? Well, it seems to be a two-way street: lack of sleep can exacerbate or give rise to a number of disorders, but likewise, many disorders can cause poor sleeping habits.

Even so, it's indisputable that severe lack of sleep can directly cause mental illness, depending on the intensity and longevity of the sleep deprivation. In fact, many illicit drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine inflict most of their damage by causing the user to be chronically deprived of sleep. Aside from the deleterious mental effects, chronic sleep deprivation has also been linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

Signs of Sleep Deprivation in Teens

Luckily, if your teen isn't getting enough sleep you should be able to recognize the problem and take action with a bit of monitoring, as the symptoms of sleep deprivation in teens are usually readily apparent. Here are some possible signs that your teenager isn't getting enough sleep or isn't getting good quality sleep:

  • Tired Facial Expressions, Bags Under Eyes, Low Eyelids, etc. - If you notice your teen has been lacking energy and has dark circles or bags under their eyes, this could be a sign that they are being affected by sustained sleep deprivation.
  • Trouble Getting Out of Bed in the Morning – If your teen is groggy, irritable, and overly tired in the morning, you can be sure they didn't get enough sleep the night before.
  • Bad Skin – Teens who don't get enough sleep are more likely to develop skins problems such as dry skin, eczema, and acne.
  • Frequent Illness – If your teen tends to get sick often it could be a sign that their immune system is exhausted from lack of sleep.
  • Poor memory – Your teen's recent bout of forgetfulness could be related to sleep deprivation.
  • Daydreaming, Attention Span Problems, and Dozing Off – If you notice your teen staring off into the distance as if they're daydreaming, falling asleep on the ride home, or losing track of simple conversations, the culprit could be ongoing lack of sleep.
  • An Urge to Take Naps in the Afternoon and Evening – If your teen is coming home from school and crashing out on the couch or going straight to their room for a nap, it could be a sign that they're not getting enough sleep at night and are trying to compensate with naps. However, this creates a cycle in which they don't get tired enough to fall asleep at night.
  • Excessive Appetite and Weight Gain – When your teen isn't getting enough sleep their body produces extra ghrelin, which is also called “the hunger hormone.” Thus, sleep deprivation prompts a heightened appetite and with it the likelihood of unhealthy weight gain.

How to Promote Positive Sleeping Habits in Teenagers

Now that you're aware of the direct connection between sleeping and health, it's important for you to take steps to ensure your teen Is getting the recommended amount of sleep per night. This can be as simple as scheduling a bedtime for some teens, or it may be more challenging for others who deal with sleep disorders or problems falling asleep. Here are some tips you can try at home to help improve your teenager's sleeping habits, to promote better growth and overall health:

  • Eliminate Caffeine and Limit Sugar – Cut out sodas, energy drinks, and coffee.
  • Feeding Smaller Meals – Reducing meal size can decrease digestive load, which may be inhibiting your teen's ability to fall asleep, especially after a large dinner.
  • Encourage Exercise – Thirty minutes of light to moderate exercise per day is all it takes to burn calories and increase the production of melatonin (the “sleep hormone” responsible for making you feel tired).
  • Refrain from Napping – Keeping your teen awake the whole day will help them fall asleep more easily at night.
  • Create a Sleep Schedule – Getting your teen on a set schedule is the best way to allow them sufficient time to fall asleep and wake up without pressure. You may want to set the actual bedtime for 1-2 hours before you want your teen to fall asleep.

How Much Sleep Do Teenagers Need?

The exact optimal amount of sleep your teenager needs will depend on a number of factors including body weight, daily activity level, diet, and lifestyle. However, a good rule of thumb is that teenagers should aim for between 8-9 hours of sleep per night.

Sadly, according to several polls, the average teenager only sleeps about seven hours per night. That means there are a large number of teenagers that are missing the eight-hour mark. So, is this natural teen behavior, or are societal influences causing a significant percentage of teens to get only 6-7 hours per night, while the more fortunate sleepers are getting 8-9 hours? One thing is certain: if your teen isn't getting a full eight hours of sleep per night, they're falling short of their full potential, both mentally and physically.

Taking Action to Get Your Teen’s Sleeping Habits Back in Order

If your teen has been exhibiting some or all of the symptoms above, you're probably concerned about their wellbeing, and rightfully so. The good news is that getting your teen to go from sleeping seven hours per night to eight hours may just be a matter of making a few adjustments. Contacting the Georgetown Behavioral Health Institute's Adolescent Program could be the first step towards correcting your teen's sleeping habits.