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Fatigued teens need less technology, more sleep
Unplugging from technology is critical to helping teens get the sleep they need

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Date published: 8/29/2010

IF YOUR TEENAGER drags out of bed in the morning with puffy eyes, stumbles to make it to the school bus and then walks like a zombie during the day, then he or she is sleep-deprived and needs to adjust his sleep habits.

According to the American Sleep Disorders Association, a teenager needs 9.5 hours of sleep per night. In reality, the typical American teenager gets an average of 7.5 hours of sleep. That puts teens two hours behind on sleep per night. That is 60 hours total of sleep deprivation per month!

Sometimes, parents bring their teenagers in to the sleep clinic where I work, hoping to help their kids become better sleepers. I remember one of my sleep-deprived patients, KJ, a 15-year-old young man who was completely absorbed in the digital world of iPods and text messaging.

He sat in the clinic, listening to music while his parents expressed concern about his school performance, fatigue and irritability. His teachers were equally concerned with his drop in grades and napping during class. KJ was too tired to keep playing basketball after school.

After dinner with the family, KJ was spending hours in his room playing video games, e-mailing, text messaging and going on Facebook. He admitted that he was losing track of time. He was getting no more than six hours of sleep each night, and when he woke up at 6:30 a.m., he was groggy and had to rush to make it to the school bus.

KJ was suffering in part because teenagers' school days start too early. But part of his sleepiness was self-inflicted and stemmed from poor sleep habits, as is the case with many teens.

Fortunately, there are always ways to change your sleep habits.


To help people improve their sleep habits, you need to share with them the benefits of sleep and explain how a lack of it gradually harms their brain function and affects other organs. Teens especially need to learn to unplug during the school year, when they have to rise early.

Sleep is made up of two separate states, REM and non-REM sleep. We alternate between these two states during sleep. Scientists believe that REM sleep helps the brain develop throughout life--especially in neonate, early childhood and adolescence, and continuing through adulthood.

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Along with helping your brain function properly, sleep also affects your weight. Hormones such as ghrelin and leptin are important in metabolism and weight control. Ghrelin makes you hungry, while leptin says "Stop, you're full."

Sleep deprivation increases ghrelin--and makes your body not listen to leptin. The result is weight gain. If you want to keep a healthy weight, you need a good night's sleep.

Sleep also helps in the repair of your cells. We think of healing as something that happens after we cut or bruise ourselves. But simply being awake and alive causes wear and tear on our cells. Growth hormone is released in our blood during sleep and repairs our tissues and immune system.

Another reason why sleep is important is that sex hormones like testosterone peak during sleep, especially during REM sleep. Testosterone is important for muscle function, motivation and sex characteristics in males (and to a smaller extent in females).

To improve sleep habits, teens should turn all electronics off one hour before bedtime. This means no cell phone, TV, computer or iPod. In one survey in 2007, 1 in 6 teenagers said that they sent 10 or more texts per hour throughout the night. The use of technology at night greatly affects sleep quality.

The problem isn't just that technology stimulates teens when their brains and bodies need to be slowing down. Melatonin, our natural hypnotic, is secreted during low luminescence, which is naturally expected at night. Yet the combination of light bulbs and computer screens keeps the brain from getting the right signal to sleep.

Along with shutting off technology, here are more sleep tips for teens:

Establish a nighttime routine and stick with it.

Keep set sleep and wake times--avoid oversleeping on weekends. It is OK to oversleep by one hour.

Aim for 9 hours of sleep each night.

Learn to have a "winding down time" about 1 hour before bedtime. This will allow you to ease into sleep. Avoid commotion and noise.

Try light music to help you relax.

Take a warm bath or shower or foot bath in the evening.

Avoid stimulants such as the caffeine found in sodas, coffees, chocolates and energy drinks.

Avoid bright light at night. Likewise, allow yourself outdoor exposure during the day. Sunlight is a powerful regulator of our circadian rhythms, including our sleep. It also elevates our mood and gives us the opportunity to get vitamin D.

Exercise. It gives you more deep sleep and elevates your mood.

Have a healthy social life. Friendships and laughter are good for your soul and lower your stress which is good for your sleep.

Have everyone in the family adopt smart sleep habits. If one family member does not sleep well, everyone is at risk for not sleeping well. Make sure that parents have good sleeping habits--for example not watching TV in bed!

Eat your last meal three hours before bedtime. Avoid liquids close to bedtime to avoid frequent bathroom visits.

If you are having trouble sleeping, try aromatherapy or muscle relaxation techniques, and address any psychological stressors.

Keep a sleep calendar. It helps you track progress and gives you insight into what might be causing insomnia.

Finally, know that you are the best judge of yourself. Take your sleep seriously. Figure out for yourself if there is something that works for you, and avoid habits that don't help your sleep.

Dr. Maha Alattar is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist. She also directs the Mary Washington Healthcare stroke program. You can send comments or questions about her column to healthyliving@freelance star.com.