The paradox of sleep

Sleep is a paradox: we can’t live without it, we never want to wake up in the morning, and yet we fight it every night, staring at a bright, little screen or thinking about every mistake we’ve ever made. For teenagers, this is especially true. Sufficient, quality sleep is vital to development and the ability to function at full capacity.

Nine to eleven hours of sleep every night is recommended for teenagers, according to the article, “The Science of Sleep” in UNT Health Science Center’s Solutions magazine. Have you ever wondered why adults are typically able to wake up in the early hours of the morning while you struggle to crawl out of bed by 7:30 a.m.?

“The simple answer is teens are still developing and adults aren’t,” says Dr. Brandy Roane, a certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist with the University of North Texas Health Science Center. “The science answer is a bit longer,” Dr. Roane continues. “Sleep is a state of consciousness that allows the body and mind to restore. Memories are moved from our short-term to long-term storage while our muscles are able to relax and repair. Sleep also plays a role in growth and developmental changes… Significant changes are occurring not only in the body, but also in the brain during puberty.”

Not only can an insufficient amount of sleep affect teenage development, but too much variation in wake and sleep times can also have adverse effects, namely mental health issues.

“Puberty onset marks a significant increase in rates of depressed mood, suicidality, and other mental health issues. Time and time again, insufficient and variable sleep patterns have been found to predict the onset of these conditions. Consequently, sleep is essential to health and wellness,” explains Dr. Roane.

Individual differences also play a role in sleep habits. Some people may notice that they only feel like they are fully functioning after a minimum of nine hours of sleep, while others are bright and chipper after as little as six hours of sleep. A  study conducted for Challenge Success at All Saints’ found that Upper School students average 6.5 hours of sleep a night. For example, Megan Smith ’19 says that she aims to fall asleep between 9:30 and 11:00 p.m. and feels best after eight hours of sleep. “When I don’t get enough sleep, I drink coffee and make sure I eat a good breakfast,” Megan explained of her sleep and wake habits. Dr. Roane explains the factors that play into individual sleep needs. 

“Like many things, from our personal preferences on soda flavors to our ability to participate in a Biology lab dissection without feeling squeamish, nature and nurture intersect to create variations,” Dr. Roane said. “How individuals respond to sleep loss is dependent on numerous factors including their own sleep need (not everyone needs the same amount), their body’s ability to promote wakefulness in the face of heightened sleep pressure due to sleep loss, and how they navigate the stress sleep loss induces. In-lab studies show that even the individuals who do not appear to be as affected by sleep loss still perform poorly on tests of their cognitive processing abilities and reaction times.”

Finally, there are certain steps a person can take to determine if they are getting a sufficient and adequate amount of sleep. Dr. Roane says the best way to know if you need additional sleep is to “test the hypothesis.”

Here are some questions she recommends you ask yourself:

  • Is the sleep duration the same seven days per week (so no catch-up sleep on the weekends)?  If there is catch-up sleep on the weekends, then you are not sleeping enough on weekdays.
  • Are you taking naps during the day? Naps can be remembered times of falling asleep or what scientists call micro-sleeps or mini-naps. These are times when you might space-out for a few seconds, but don’t recall fully falling into sleep. These micro-sleeps indicate the brain is trying to recover lost sleep.  
  • Do you feel sleepy during the afternoon from about 2-4 PM? This sleepiness may result in an actual nap or a strong desire to nap.  
  • Do you consume any wake-promoting agents during the daytime? Do you engage in any wake-promoting activities during the daytime to avoid sleepiness? Most people have learned to attend to the caffeine they consume, but they are not always as aware of the activities they may do to avoid feeling sleepy. We will engage in stimulating and active behaviors when we feel sleepy. If a teen finds a strong preference for their phone during the afternoon because they feel run-down or distractible, then the teen is likely not getting enough sleep at night.
  • Do you ever fall asleep and almost immediately begin dreaming? This suggests you are not reaching the stage of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep due to insufficient sleep and, as a consequence, REM has appeared at a time is shouldn’t. Except for newborns, we fall asleep by entering into Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep.
  • Do you have an underlying sleep disorder like insomnia? If so, you may not recognize feeling sleepy. However, if the insomnia is treated, then your sleep duration will increase.

Challenge yourself to figure out a bedtime and wake-up routine that works for you and stay consistent. Getting sufficient sleep is the first step in staying mindful and healthy.


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