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Teen Sleeplessness Leads to More Sick Days

By Kelly Todd, NAMI Intern

When youíre a teenager, one of the best things you can do for yourself is get good sleep. Previous research on the benefits of sleep has shown that teens who get healthy levels of sleep are at a lower risk for developing depression and anxiety. They also report less stress and better concentration. However, having good sleep habits benefit more than just your mind, it buffers you against illness as well. Recent findings from Bradley Hospital published in the Journal of Sleep Research have found that healthy teens who report getting less sleep at night are more likely to develop an acute illness, such as colds, flu or gastroenteritis. The study was led by Kathryn Orzech, Ph.D. of the Bradley Hospital Sleep Research Laboratory.

Orzech and her team compared three outcomes between teenage short and long sleepers: number of illness bouts, illness duration and school absences due to illness. Their research found that longer sleep decreases the number of times that both males and females experience illness. They were also able to link longer sleep to less school absences due to illness.

Orzechís team came to their conclusions by looking at the total sleep time reported by their subjects for a six day window both before and after they experienced an illness. Generally, they found a trend in the data of shorter sleep periods before periods of illness than before periods of wellness. Not all of the subjects fit this trend though. To figure out why some participants were responding differently to similar levels of sleep, Orzech conducted a qualitative analysis, analyzing interview data from two shorter sleeping males who had very different illness profiles. From the data her team found that teenís sleeping schedules also played a role. Having an irregular sleep schedule, like when high school students sleep little during the week and try to catch up on the weekends, was found to affect the teensí illness outcomes.

When we are young itís easy to feel invincible. Most sleep studies only look at long term outcomes like cardiovascular disease or obesity which seem so far off to teenagers that itís easy to ignore them when theyíre pulling all-nighters to study for their chemistry test. Orzechís study showed that there are important, short term outcomes of poor sleep too.  The link between acute illness and poor, irregular sleep is more relevant to teenagers, who may not be worrying today about developing cardiovascular disease in 30 years, but who are definitely worried about making it to their favorite bandís concert next week (because nothing can ruin a fun time quite like the stomach flu).

Acute illnesses arenít the only problem that comes with lack of sleep for teens. Previous research has shown that teens who report low levels of sleep are four times as likely to develop major depressive disorder compared to their peers who sleep more. Over 50% of teens who get less than six hours of sleep also report high levels of psychological distress, indicating good sleep habits as a buffer against stressors and mental illness.

Ready to start getting better, more regular sleep and start feeling happier and healthier? Check out some tips below for ways to improve your sleep!

  • Set your sleep schedule. Falling asleep and waking up at the same time every day reinforces your bodyís sleep-wake cycle and promotes better sleep at night. When setting your schedule, keep in mind that teens need at least 8 Ĺ hours of sleep each night.
  • Be mindful of food and drink. Going to bed either stuffed or hungry can both cause problems when youíre trying to fall asleep. Avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol near bedtime will also help ease your transition into dreamland.
  • Have a bedtime ritual. Taking a bath or listening to music every night before you go to bed will help let your body know that itís time to sleep.
  • Make your room conducive to sleep. Falling asleep is all about comfort so create the room you feel most at rest in. Depending on your preferences this could mean getting light blocking curtains or a night light, a fan or extra blankets and so on.
  • Limit naps. I know, I know, I love napping too. However, napping too much during the day can make it difficult to fall asleep at night. If you canít make it through the day without one then try a 10-30 minute power nap in the mid-afternoon.
  • Get active. Regular physical activity promotes better sleep. Make sure you donít exercise too close to bedtime though! It may leave you feeling too energized to fall asleep.
  • Manage stress. When youíre stressed your sleep can suffer. Check out some of NAMIís suggestions for managing stress.
  • Donít worry about lost sleep. When youíre having trouble falling asleep it can be easy to make the problem worse by worrying about the consequences. Instead of worrying about falling asleep in class tomorrow, get out of bed for a couple minutes and clear your head before trying to hit the sack again.
  • Know when to consult a doctor. Everyone experiences trouble sleeping at some point or another, but if you often have poor or irregular sleep it may be a sign of insomnia or another sleep issue.