The effects of sleep deprivation on teenagers has been widely studied, and new research published in Physiology and Behavior adds to the mountain of evidence that indicates Americans are not taking sleep issues among teenagers seriously enough. Seven out of 10 American teens are sleep deprived. Not getting enough high-quality sleep has been shown to cause poor physical health and lower cognitive functioning.
The newest research shows that not getting enough sleep can also make teenagers more reactive to stress. What if the explosive, dramatic responses to stress from teenagers could be curbed? What if it wasn’t just the age and stage of development that caused teenagers to be so reactive, but rather the unhealthy expectations of trying to perform well with inadequate sleep?
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The new research indicated that the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which is a part of the neuroendocrine system that controls reactions to stress, is going through critical changes during adolescence. Sylvie Mrug and the research team from the University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB) and Arizona State University investigated the relationship between sleep deprivation and reactivity to stress but specifically focuses on HPA-axis activity. They looked at sleeping habits and issues as well as cortisol levels before and after social stress.
“We chose to look at sleep patterns in urban African-American adolescents, due to information we understood from earlier research in the field,” Mrug said. “This particular population is more likely to experience insufficient sleep, and their functioning is more negatively affected by lower sleep quality, so we knew that finding results for this demographic could be especially important.”
The teens involved in the study completed a version of the Trier Social Stress Test in order to measure their physiological responses to stress. They spoke and did mental math problems in front of an audience as part of the study. The teenager’s cortisol levels were monitored by comparing saliva samples before and after the test. As it turned out, the cortisol released was higher among teens who reported sleep problems.
Cortisol release was higher among teen girls than among teen boys. Interestingly, the teens who slept the longest but experienced poorer sleep problems had the worst stress response. This was the only result that surprised the researchers, who said that just because the teens slept longer doesn’t mean they had good quality sleep. The teens with the highest reactivity to stress were the same teens who reported sleep issues, even though they slept longer than their peers who slept better, according to Medical News Today.
According to a press release on UAB News, the sleep problems most likely contribute to academic, behavioral, and health issues. They say that the relationship between sleep and the HPA axis has been studied in adults and in younger children, but that very little is known about the link between the two in teenagers. They do know though that adolescence is a critical time for brain development and that the HPA axis is undergoing significant developmental changes during puberty. At the same time, earlier research has made it clear that teens also undergo significant changes to their sleep needs related to this time of growth.
“In this case, this unexpected result could be explained by considering that longer sleep duration does not necessarily reflect higher-quality sleep, but instead may serve as another indicator of sleep problems, at least among urban adolescents,” Mrug said. “The urban African-American youth whom we studied may be particularly negatively affected by poor sleep because they are more likely to experience uncontrollable stress related to community and school violence. We want to do all that we can to understand ways we can help ensure better cognitive, emotional and physical health outcomes for these adolescents.”
According to Science Daily, a paper published in the Journal of Learning, Media and Technology blames teenage defiance on exhaustion rather than laziness, hormones, or bad attitudes. That research suggested moving to later school bells to improve effective learning, raise test scores, and see better behavior among teens, according to NPR.
The Inquisitr reported earlier that social times and biological times are better aligned during elementary school years.
“Our sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm, is the result of a complex balance between states of alertness and sleepiness regulated by a part of the brain called Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SNC); in puberty, shifts in our body clocks push optimal sleep later into the evening, making it extremely difficult for most teenagers to fall asleep before 11:00 p.m.,” the article in Science Daily explained. “This, coupled with early school starts in the morning, results in chronically sleep-deprived and cranky teens as well as plummeting grades and health problems.”
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In fact, most high schools and middle schools in the U.S. are blatantly defying the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics by ignoring the sleep needs of teenagers to favor earlier bells. The AAP urged high school and middle school administrators to delay the start time of high school and junior high school until at least 8:30 a.m. Eight out of 10 students in high schools and middle schools in the U.S. start school before the earliest time suggested by the CDC, the Inquisitr reported earlier. The CDC blamed early school start times and the lack of productive sleep they bring for both poorer physical health and poorer mental health among teens.
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