Teens and Sleep – Unlikely Partners

19 02 2010

Got teens? Bet they groan and moan in the morning, too exhausted to speak.

When our teenagers don’t get the sleep they need, their drowsiness leads to traffic accidents, poor grades, and stronger, more negative emotions. The same is true for adults, but teens have a particularly hard time getting enough sleep.

How much sleep we get is closely tied to how well the immune system works. Not enough sleep, we’re going to get sick.

Just as sleep affects our immune systems, challenges to our immune systems (such as fighting a virus or bacteria) can negatively affect our sleep.

Although science has long recognized that sleep and the immune system do have a relationship, we haven’t really known why or how it works.  One study found that among mammals (humans are included in this category), the species that sleep the longest have the most white blood cells.

White blood cells help keep infection out and fight infection once it gets in to keep the body healthy.  It’s possible that sleep stimulates the immune system to make the white blood cells that fight infection.

To test the sleep/immune system connection, one researcher gave flu vaccines to a group of college students who had only slept four hours in the previous six nights.  Follow-up testing found that this group of students only produced half of the normal number of antibodies in response to the vaccine.

This doesn’t bode well for the 69% of high school students who don’t get enough sleep each night.  In fact, studies show that only 8% of teenagers get the optimal amount of 9 hours of sleep they need.

What keeps these kids up at night?  Well, social factors such as employment, activities, caffeine consumption, increased amounts of electronic devices in the bedroom, and early school start times are most often to blame.

Teens can turn things around by:

  • Prioritizing the demands on their time so that they get the sleep they need.
  • Establishing a bedtime routine by going to bed and getting up at a regular time. (In order for kids to get enough sleep, they should be going to bed before 10pm, although this may go against natural sleeping rhythms that occur during the teen years.)
  • Not trying to catch up on sleep on the weekends. Specialists think that it doesn’t work. Rather, they suggest teens sleep in a little later on the weekends, but generally keep their bodies in the same sleep-wake pattern they establish during the week.

How much sleep we each need is not an exact science, but there are guidelines and it’s worth it to try to get sufficient sleep.

The bottom line is that all humans need adequate sleep—it boosts our immune systems and keeps us healthy.  It also helps us live longer.  And, we’re not so grouchy.