By, Julie Wilson
We spend roughly a third of our lives asleep, yet scientists are still not sure what sleep is or why we do it. While it may seem obvious to say that we rest our brains when we sleep, the brain is actually quite active at night as it progresses through five different stages of sleep. What exactly happens during these stages is unclear.
However, scientists do know what happens when we don’t get enough sleep. The immune system is strengthened during sleep as T cell (white blood cell) counts increase and regulatory hormones are released. These necessary processes are restricted with a lack of sleep; therefore, extreme exhaustion can lead to weakness against viruses, an inability to regulate body temperature, or even death. While the effects of minor sleep deprivation are not nearly as severe, they still have a negative influence on our day-to-day lives. Scientists believe that sleep can solidify the day’s learning, so a lack of sleep can result in poorer performance of an already-learned task. Emotions can become heightened and unpredictable, and energy levels run low (“Adolescent Sleep Cycles”, Sherre Florence Phillips). All in all, sleep deprivation takes both a physical and emotional toll on the human body, and the toll it takes on teens is even worse than on adults and younger children.
According to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, adolescents ages 13-18 need between 9 and 9.5 hours of sleep per night, but on average only get between 7 and 7.25 hours of sleep. As teens ourselves, we know that homework, extracurricular activities, and an early start to the school day are just some of the many factors that can contribute to a lack of sleep. However, what many people don’t know is that adolescent brains’ biological clocks actually shift during puberty so that it’s harder for teens to fall asleep at a decent hour (National Sleep Foundation). That’s right– there’s a reason you can’t fall asleep until twelve or one o’clock in the morning, no matter how hard you try.
Many students at Winsor have the common misconception that sleeping in on the weekends will help them make up for their lack of sleep during the week. However, the attempts by teens to “catch up” on sleep may actually be detrimental to their sleep schedules. Sleeping into the late morning on the weekends tricks the brain into setting the next night’s sleep cycle to later, consequently rewiring one’s biological clock. A 2006 survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that more than 30% of teens take naps lasting about 1.2 hours regularly. However, scientists speculate that naps longer than 45 minutes can actually make it harder for one to sleep at night. Shorter naps, on the other hand, can provide short-term alertness without giving you that dazed, cranky feeling.
So what can teens do to combat sleep deprivation, if sleeping in and taking a long nap don’t work? One thing we can do is to try to limit the use of our electronics at night. According to Sleep.org, the screens of our electronic devices can prevent the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls our sleep cycles and helps us to fall asleep. The amount of light processed by the brain is inversely proportional to the amount of melatonin the brain produces. In other words, the more light in the room there is, the less melatonin is produced. Furthermore, the blue LED light given off by screens is a far greater melatonin supressor than natural light. Kayla L., Class VI, has found one solution to this problem–software that automatically adjusts a computer screen’s colors according to the time of day. This software, F.lux, not only helps her to “set [her computer] at a time in which the screen becomes gradually more yellow”, but also “makes [her] eyes hurt less after staring at [her] screen for hours.” However, even with this software, social media and other addictive distractions can keep us awake for hours without our realizing it. Although it’s easier said than done to reduce the number of electronics we use at night given that much of our homework is done on a computer, perhaps not bringing one’s electronics into one’s bedroom at night can help cut unnecessary screen time. We can also try to go to sleep at the same time on the weekends that we do on the weekdays in order to regulate our sleep cycles, since sleeping late unfortunately does more harm than good. But changing our habits with technology can only go so far–in order to really combat teen sleep deprivation, we must change the school system itself. In fact, schools across the country have already begun implementing changes that could help students get more sleep. A bill was recently introduced in California that would require all public schools to open their doors at 8:30, giving students another half hour of sleep. Hopefully, further research and discovery about adolescent sleep will help guide schools to change their scheduling and electronics policies. But for now, maybe it would be best to stop reading this article and take a power nap.