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Forty years ago, a study by researchers at Stanford University demonstrated that more, not less, sleep was required as children grew into adolescence. Teenagers limited to six hours of sleep per night exhibited the same severity of sleepiness as narcoleptics who require medication and several naps to treat their disease.
According to Dr. Mary Carskadon at Brown University, teenagers require nine-and-a-quarter hours of sleep, yet most report getting fewer than seven. While their bodies and minds are undergoing tremendous physical, intellectual growth, 75 percent of 13 to 18 year-olds are going to bed at 11 p.m. or later - on school nights. Add early morning class times, and the result is sleep deficits of two to three hours per night. It is little wonder that 40 percent of all teens report feeling "too sleepy" most of the time.
Most high schools, for a variety of reasons, begin school before their students can focus. Morning routines and commutation times require wake-ups in the wee-hours. In a study examining the effect of earlier start times on students transitioning from junior high to high school, Dr. Carskadon observed that "none of the students made an optimal adjustment to the new schedule; none was sleeping even eight-and-a-quarter hours on school nights."
While academic performance is important, there are life and death issues at stake. In January, CBS News announced more frightening findings: tired teens are more likely to struggle with depression and have thoughts of suicide. Columbia Medical School researchers found that students with bedtimes of midnight or later were more likely to have suicidal thoughts than those with imposed bedtimes of 10 p.m. or earlier. Those who slept five hours or less were 71 percent more likely to report depression and 40 percent more apt to think of suicide. Lack of sleep hinders the ability to cope with stress, impairs decision-making and results in poor impulse control, including the use of drugs and alcohol. The good news: earlier bedtimes can help protect adolescents from such tendencies.
What can teenagers do to help themselves? Although difficult, work to achieve a better balance between academic and extracurricular commitments. Experts suggest establishing a relaxing bedtime routine: have a light snack before bed and retire the same time each night. Adopt an eight-hour lights-out policy. Avoid sleep products, caffeine late in the day, and naps longer than 30 minutes. Reserve the sheets for sleeping only. In the morning, let the sunshine in, turn lights on and open the blinds upon waking. On weekends, do not deviate more than an hour or two from weekday sleep schedules.
Parents need to work with teens to establish a healthy wake-sleep routine. Experts recommend encouraging teenagers to experiment with earlier bedtimes so they can see for themselves how beneficial even an hour more of shut-eye can be. Researcher James Gangwisch, Ph.D. says, "We all must put higher priority on sleeping. We feel like we can just eat into our sleep time, but we pay for it in many different ways."