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Sleep Disorders in Teens

Sleep deprivation is a condition that many teens suffer from chronically. And yet, they are at an age when both the quantity and quality of sleep are essential to their health and development. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adolescents aged 13 to 18 years have 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night.

Adolescence is a time of rapid physical development, hormonal changes, and emotional ups and downs. Sleep deprivation has been shown to have a negative impact on these processes as well as on teenagers' overall health. Trouble sleeping and lack of sleep affect the mood and behavior of teens, and because they wake up still feeling tired, their focus and academic performance suffer too.

Many teens enjoy staying up late on their phones and other electronic devices - a habit that makes it hard to fall asleep or to enjoy good sleep, in anyone. But for teenagers, even when they want to sleep, many encounter sleep problems. Trouble falling asleep means they get less sleep than they need, and cumulative sleep loss can make teens feel gloomy leading to emotional problems and even feelings of depression.

It's important to monitor a teenager's sleep patterns as, over time, lack of sleep can impact not just their physical health but their mental health and well-being too. Sleep disorders in teens are treatable and can often be remedied thanks to simple changes in routine, sleep habits, and the sleeping environment. If a teen's sleep issues persist, it is wise to consult a sleep specialist.

Why Teens Have Trouble Sleeping

Due to biological changes at the onset of puberty, teenagers' brains naturally work until later at night because the sleep hormone melatonin is produced later than in younger children or adults. This sets their body clocks to sleeping later at night and staying asleep longer in the morning, which means that they naturally have a harder time falling asleep. Sometimes, however, the sleep-wake cycle can cause teens to stay awake until a very late hour. This is known as the delayed sleep phase syndrome, also known as the 'night owl' syndrome.

Another reason teens lose sleep is the prolonged use of electronic devices. Specifically, the blue light from the screens of phones, tablets, or laptops (as well as bright lights in general) can cause them trouble falling asleep. The use of devices close to bedtime also makes their minds active, which can keep teens awake when their body clock says they should be sound asleep.

Things That Disturb Teen Sleep

Many people have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep some of the time, quite often because of preoccupations or concerns they're turning over in their minds. This problem can be exacerbated for teenagers because, for most teens, the changes they're going through and the things going on in their lives can feel pretty intense. Things that can make it hard for teens to get enough sleep include:

  • an uncomfortable sleeping environment - a room with poor airflow or that's noisy or bright
  • a physical discomfort of some kind - for example, growing pains, restless legs
  • a feeling of stress or anxiety related to school, personal worries, or relationships - either within the family or outside
  • the side effects of certain medications
  • a mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression
  • certain medical conditions
  • an active evening habit, or a bedtime routine that's not conducive to sound sleep.

How Many Teens Have a Sleep Disorder?

The 2020 data from the Centers for Disease Control revealed that 70% of adolescents regularly get less than 8 hours of sleep - that's more than 40 million teenagers suffering from sleep deprivation. Sleep disorders affect not only the quality, duration, and timing of sleep - they also impact how a teen feels and functions during the day. Most teens who suffer from sleep disorders may complain of daytime sleepiness or feeling tired during their waking hours.

Many sleep disorders can affect teens:

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome - DSPD

This disorder is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder, meaning that it affects your 24-hour body clock. This controls vital biological functions such as body temperature and hunger as well as governing what time you fall asleep or wake during every 24-hour cycle - the circadian rhythm.

DSPD causes people trouble falling asleep at a socially more or less normal hour. However, just because sleep gets delayed doesn't mean a teenager won't sleep well. They're just likely to get too little sleep simply because their sleeping hours aren't compatible with a normal school day.

Sleep deprivation - whether resulting from DSPD or other causes - can cause difficulties concentrating. It has also been linked to mental health issues such as depression or anxiety and bipolar tendencies. Being out of sync with most people's sleep-wake cycle can also put teens at risk of drug and alcohol use, in an effort either to fall asleep or to stay awake at 'normal' times.

This is one of the more serious possible side effects of sleep disorders and sleep deprivation. Teenagers are at a vulnerable time in their lives, eager to experiment and discover new things. They can also have a lot going on and a lot to manage in their lives. Their education, extracurricular activities, new friendships and relationships, and so on. If a teenager shows any sign of turning to substance abuse to cope with the low moods caused by lack of sleep, you should seek the advice of a medical professional without delay.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea - OBS

Obstructive sleep apnea is when a person briefly stops breathing, unconsciously and involuntarily, during sleep. These pauses or interruptions in breathing usually happen several times throughout the night and frequently cause the person to awaken slightly and perhaps heave a sigh before slipping back into a deeper sleep. The cycle may then repeat itself.

Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by the airways becoming obstructed, either partially or entirely, for brief moments. This may be due to large tonsils or adenoids, congested sinuses, or the position you sleep in. Someone with OBS may toss and turn a lot and breathe loudly or snore. They may also sweat heavily.

Obstructive sleep apnea can cause potential health issues, particularly if it persists over time. It's therefore important to consult your family doctor if the disorder threatens to become chronic, as not only does it disrupt sleep patterns, but it can lead to learning and behavioral problems and, even in some cases, heart conditions.

Nightmares

Most teens have nightmares now and again. As a child transitions toward adulthood, they are required to become more independent and rely less on the safe cocoon of parental protection and the family home. Teenagers are going through a time of rapid and intense change on all levels. New anxieties and fears can arise in their lives - the subconscious mind of a teenager can have a lot to process while they sleep.

Frequent nightmares can make it difficult to go back to sleep again, and even if they can, the quality of sleep is disturbed, leading to the feeling they still need more sleep when they have to get up.

Restless Legs Syndrome

As its name suggests, this condition is characterized by a strong urge to keep moving the legs. This is caused by discomfort, such as sensations of itchiness, tingling, cramping, or burning. Symptoms are felt not only during sleep but often when a person is simply resting or lying down too. Because people often feel the need to move quite vigorously, or even stretch, to get rid of the unpleasant sensations, the condition contributes to poor sleep.

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder - PLMD

Though the symptoms of periodic limb movement disorder are similar to those of restless legs syndrome, the two are distinct conditions. They can, nevertheless, occur simultaneously. PLMD is a disorder that affects up to 11% of the population. It is characterized by repeated jerking or twitching movements of the lower limbs during sleep. These periodic limb movements can occur at intervals of 5 to 90 seconds for periods as long as an hour.

Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a much less common sleep disorder, but childhood and adolescence is often when symptoms start to appear. In a normal sleep cycle, a person enters the dreaming stage of sleep, accompanied by rapid eye movements, after 60 to 90 minutes. This dreaming activity is accompanied by natural muscle weakness, which prevents a person from responding to their dreams through physical movement.

Narcolepsy can cause muscles to go suddenly limp even when people are awake. It also causes excessive daytime sleepiness, meaning people can unexpectedly and suddenly fall asleep, and they may also experience very vivid dreams.

Getting Better Sleep

Poor sleep hygiene is the main cause of many sleep issues. The term sleep hygiene refers to both environment and habits, and good sleep hygiene supports restful, adequate sleep on a regular basis. Some basic recommendations are as follows:

  • keep the bedroom clean, well-ventilated, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature
  • remember, sound sleep starts long before bedtime - so avoid caffeine (found in coffee, tea, and energy drinks) in the late afternoon and evening
  • healthy tiredness from physical exercise helps sound sleep - but don't exercise too close to bedtime
  • have a routine that helps you unwind before sleep - do relaxing things that quieten the mind, before bedtime, such as having a warm bath or shower, reading or listening to music
  • turn off all devices about an hour before bed, and put away homework - don't do anything that stimulates intellectual activity or makes your mind busy or agitated.
  • if you are feeling very tired, have a short nap in the early afternoon so you don't become over-tired

Most of us can relate to the feeling of a bad night's sleep. And when sleep problems make that the default state, it makes life very hard - in teenagers, regular lack of sleep can translate into mood and behavioral disorders, emotional difficulties, mental health problems, and even substance abuse - as touched on earlier.

At Clearfork Academy, we want every teenager to have the chance to reach their full potential. Our expertise, and our mission, are to help adolescents overcome their difficulties. If your teenage child is showing signs of sleep problems and struggling with their mental health, reach out to us to discuss how we can help them.

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