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Living - December 14, 2007

The 411: More sleep needed for teenzzzz

by Katharine O'Hara

I can tell you firsthand that teenagers don't get enough sleep. As I sit down to write this column at 10 minutes past midnight and still unfinished with my homework, I am so pleasantly reminded of this fact. As it turns out, there is a reason, more than just the mounds of homework and activities kids are involved with, that explains why the majority of teenagers - nearly 80 percent - rarely get the recommended nine hours of sleep each night.

During adolescence our circadian rhythm, the body's 24-hour biological clock that dictates when we sleep and wake, temporarily resets. This change is primarily due to the fact that teens produce the hormone melatonin - a chemical associated with sleep - later in the day than do adults and even younger children. Teenagers are actually biologically programmed to go to sleep later (and thus wake up later) than the rest of the population. Unfortunately, this biological change happens to hit during a chaotic time in life, when teens are juggling homework and school, extracurriculars and a busy social life, and are already likely to suffer from too little sleep.

Because of this biological shift, many teens do not begin to feel remotely tired until at least 11 or 12 at night, even though they know an alarm awaits them at 6:30 the following morning. To wake up at 6:30 a.m. and still get the advised amount of sleep, a teenager would have to go to bed at 9:30 the previous night. This rarely happens and so, day after day, teens function on far too little sleep than is healthy and safe.

Though sleep is still very much mysterious to the scientific world, its importance is undeniably clear. Even short-term sleep deprivation can have drastic effects. Without sleep, teens are more irritable, less responsive, less able to focus, and less inclined to exercise. Teenagers lacking sleep rely on caffeine to keep them alert during the day. According to a Sleep Foundation poll, 28 percent of high school students reported dozing off in class, and 14 percent admitted to arriving late or missing class altogether because they overslept. Not getting enough sleep also poses a significant danger to driving, as driving drowsy is arguably just as dangerous as driving drunk.

Sleep is so important that our bodies build up a sleep debt when we don't get enough, and will make up the lost sleep another night. Thus, chronic sleep deprivation, which never allows the body a chance to catch up, can create serious problems. If loss of sleep becomes chronic - that is, if it persists longer than one month - teens are at an even higher risk for developing insomnia, depression, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

The Sleep Foundation reported that 12th-graders sleep an average of 6.9 hours on school nights, an hour and a half less than the average 8.4 hours of sleep sixth-graders get. What is even more shocking is that 90 percent of polled parents reported that their kids get enough sleep, when in reality, only 20 percent of teens actually do.

That teens naturally go to sleep late and have to get up early for school does not make the problem any better. Currently only 16 percent of high schools in the United States begin class later than 8:15 a.m., according to Richard P. Millman of Brown University. Mild nationwide controversy has sparked over whether schools should start classes later.

Difficulty waking up in the morning, moodiness or depression, dozing off during the day and inability to concentrate are all indicators of too little sleep, and are symptoms I suspect many teens suffer from. There are ways to combat the issue, however. Experts advise setting a regular time to go to bed and wake up every day. Sleeping on a schedule lets the body know when it is time to sleep, and can help to set a new rhythm. It is important to exercise regularly but not before bed, as exercise revs up the body. Exercising five to six hours before bed can actually help one sleep better.

To improve sleep, teens should avoid naps longer than 30 minutes during the day, and no caffeine should be consumed after 4 in the afternoon. Keeping the lights dim and engaging in relaxing activities like reading before bed can also help. Reports have indicated 97 percent of youths have at least one electronic item - a television, computer, etc., in their bedroom. However, watching television or surfing the Web right before bed can hinder sleep.

I am one of the many victims of sleep deprivation, rarely getting to bed before midnight on weeknights amid my homework and various responsibilities. Sleep is one of the most important gifts a person can give their body, and it so often gets harmfully neglected. Teen sleep deprivation is a far more serious issue than is realized. Now that we understand the unavoidable biological mechanism that causes teens to get tired later, it is crucial we make the societal changes - namely less homework and later school times - that will guide teens back on track, not spin them further out of control.

The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at ohara5@comcast.net.

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