September 14, 2022 — Like many parents of teenagers, LaToya S. worries about her son’s health sleep habits. In the first weeks of the pandemic, when her 13-year-old daughter had no way to connect with friends, she ditched some of her usual screen time rules. It didn’t take long before his son’s bedtime started getting later and later, he started playing video games with friends until the early hours, and a nighttime sleep quality went out the window. Two years later, LaToya is still working to get her back to normal sleep.
There is a good reason for his efforts. The link between poor sleep habits and bad health are well established. For teenagers, this can mean lower grades, higher rates of mood disordersa higher risk of substance abuse, and more.
“When he returned to school after the closings, we started to see the effects of his disrupted sleep patterns,” says LaToya. “The teachers noticed that after the first two hours, he was drowsy in class. He began to fall behind, especially in classes that required extra effort. We recognized that we needed to make changes.
As if academic performance weren’t enough to worry about, for parents like LaToya, a new study has added another area of concern: too little sleep in adolescents is linked to obesity and be overweight.
The study, authored by Jesus Martinez Gomez, a researcher-in-training at the Cardiovascular Health and Imaging Laboratory of Spain’s National Center for Cardiovascular Research, examined the link between sleep duration and health in more than 1,200 adolescents, spread over also between boys and girls. . The researchers began measuring sleep at age 12, then repeated the exercise at ages 14 and 16. Each time, people in the study wore activity trackers for 7 days.
Along with the sleep measurements, the researchers measured body mass index (BMI) throughout the study. They also calculated a score of things that can increase the risk of heart disease and other conditions, ranging from negative (healthier) to positive (unhealthier) values. Additionally, the researchers measured and tracked waist circumference, blood pressure, and blood sugar.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommended that teens between the ages of 13 and 18 consistently sleep between 8 and 10 hours a night for optimal health. But the Spanish study found that at age 12, only 34% of study participants managed to get a full 8 hours of sleep per night. When the subjects reached age 14, that number dropped to 23%, and by age 16, it dropped to 19%. Combine data for Overweight and obesity, at age 12, 21% fell into this category; at age 14, the number rose to 24%; and at age 16, when sleep was at its lowest, the number jumped to 27%.
Laura Sterni, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Pediatric Sleep Center, isn’t surprised by these findings. “We fail to make sure our teenagers get enough sleep,” she says. “There are a number of contributing factors, and the negative impact is significant.”
As for the link to obesity, lack of sleep as a cause isn’t quite there yet, but it’s likely.
“At this time, it’s correlation, not causation, but parents should still consider the connection,” says Bruce Bassi, MD, medical director and founder of TelepsychHealth, an online therapy provider. “All the effects that come with sleep deprivation are the exact opposite of what you want. Sleep deprivation works on the toddler sides of our brains – we get grumpier and crave calm, and sometimes that’s food.
“We’re getting more data all the time,” Sterni says of the discovery that sleep deprivation leads to obesity. “Risk factors for obesity appear to be dose-related.”
Indeed: as the Spanish study points out, the less a teenager sleeps, the more likely he is to become overweight or obese.
“We know that insufficient sleep leads to alterations in important hormonal control and metabolic markers,” says Sterni. “It impacts the hormones that make us feel full by lowering them, and conversely makes our hunger ascend.”
Lack of sleep also impacts how a body metabolizes glucose, leads to insulin resistance, and makes eating poor carbs more appealing to the body, Sterni says.
“Then there’s the fact that when you go to bed late, you have more opportunity to eat, maybe mindlessly snack on bad foods in front of screens,” she says. “You’re sleepy during the day, so you’re not as prone to exercise, That is. Lifestyle factors are integrated into the picture.
Teenagers today are also notoriously busy, which does not encourage a bedtime habits. Social activities, sports, and commitments to clubs and school can all delay bedtime and wake up earlier. Add it all up and lack of sleep can put teens at risk for lifelong health issues, many of which are due to unhealthy weight.
How to help your teenager
While the data may be sobering, there are important ways parents can help their teens develop better sleep habits.
“The good news is that there is data showing that if you teach families and young people the importance of sleep, they will listen and work to maintain healthy sleep habits,” says Sterni. “It’s as important as brushing your teeth, and you should always strive to get adequate amounts of it.”
Bassi says one of the most logical places to start is to encourage earlier bedtimes.
“For most teens, the end-of-sleep marker is set because of school, so focus on when they go to bed instead,” he suggests. “Encourage better sleep hygiene and reduce stimulation before bedtime.”
That means building good screen time habits, an important part of the approach Greg F. and his partner take. Parents of a 15 and 17 year old child, they have strict rules in place for their devices.
“They can only use their phones in the common areas of the house, and they have to turn them off at 8:45 at night,” says Greg. “In the morning, they can’t use their phones until all their chores and breakfast are done. We think it’s best for them to sleep front and back before they have their phone in their hands. »
Exercising during the day can also improve a teen’s chances of being ready for sleep at a reasonable time in the evening. With both active kids in sports, that’s another box that Greg’s family checks.
“Parents can also demonstrate their own good habits,” suggests Bassi. “Positively reinforce your guidelines by turning off your own screens at night.”
Greg heeds this advice.
“We don’t have televisions in our bedrooms, we go to bed early and open a book before going to bed,” he says.
Napping is another area to visit. As many parents of teens know, this is an age group that likes to nap when they can.
“I’m not against naps,” Sterni says. But, he says, “limit naps to 45 minutes to an hour and try to keep your teen from napping too close to bedtime.”
While there are many areas to work on with teens and sleep patterns, Sterni recommends starting with one or two, rather than tackling them all at once.
“You’re not going to do them all right away,” she says. “Just work towards the goal of 8 hours on average, but you have to own it.”
For LaToya, the work to improve her son’s sleeping habits is far from over, but she is seeing progress. The family implemented downtime on their router, set a bedtime of 10 p.m., and even gave their son an old-fashioned alarm clock to replace the alarm on his phone in his bedroom. As habits improve, they can revise some rules.
“We’ve recognized that teens need incentives to engage in positive behavior just as much as young children,” she says. “Our consistency is paying off and we are patient with his progress.”