Teens Struggle To Complete Proper Sleep Cycles

Healthy habits can prevent common issues with brain cognition


Photo courtesy of Marsha Hale

Sophomore Casey Hale sleeps after a long day of work. Hale did not receive her desired amount of sleep from the previous night.

Sophomore Casey Hale knows she does not get enough sleep.

“But at least I have A’s,” she said.

At least I have A’s”

Hale thinks homework adds to her poor sleep because of the amount of time it takes every evening. Without it, she said she would go to bed much earlier.

“Every night when I get home, I eat first, struggle to get homework completed, shower and go to sleep,” she said.

She reported sleeping six-seven hours a night. But that’s not enough.

Teenagers should sleep for 10-11 hours every night, according to physician and neurologist Angela Young at Neurology Consultants of Dallas.

Though this sounds like a lot and maybe even impossible with school and extracurriculars, there is a reason behind this for developing brains.

“Having cycles and complete sleep stages during the night are key for the brain to function optimally,” Young said. “These different cycles of sleep a person’s brain has to go [through] during the night, [with] uninterrupted sleep allows for peak intellectual capacity for the next day.”

A sleep cycle is a recurring phase of sleep. As an individual sleeps, they go in and out of different stages, which have unique affects on sleep quality. If these stages are interrupted, teens can wake up more tired or even have an altered emotional state. They might be grumpy, irritable, sad or even have a more difficult time with tolerating problems that appear.

Young said that all the stages are necessary for restoring the body for the next day, especially for a growing teen’s brain. This is why she stresses the importance of a fulfilling sleep cycle, so the brain can fully engage in all the stages of cycles, which guarantees that the brain will have a normal resting time and be prepared for the following day.

Dr. Christopher James, a psychiatrist in Cleveland and medical director for Aetna, said today’s technology can help guide people towards understanding their sleep cycles.

“In a perfect world you want to wake up on your own, but we can’t do that,” James said. “With things like Apple Watches and phones, you have the ability where you can monitor your sleep cycle, and it can wake you up at the proper time during your sleep cycle.”

While this is convenient, he did say things get difficult once people start considering their schedules.

“You might not be waking up at your ideal time,” he said.

James said another important thing to keep in mind about sleeping patterns is that sleeping longer hours does not always mean better sleep.

“You can sleep too much and then wake up in the wrong part of the sleep cycle and be overly fatigued,” he said.

However, he quickly noted this can go the opposite way.

“Brains like routine and going on four hours a night, keeping a routine, you can kind of trick your brain, but in the long term, you are still doing harm,” James said.

In the most extreme of cases, James said it is possible for this to even lead to do death. However, the most common effects of lack of sleep deal with brain cognition.

“On a whole, where this affects, especially teenagers more, is that it will start to affect focus, concentration and memory,” James said.

Another common obstacle preventing some teens from building healthy sleeping habits is anxiety. Young said she sees this in her patients often, and anxiety leads to even less sleep. She suggests people experiencing either chronic or simply situational anxiety start practicing regular sleep hygiene.

Sleep doesn’t start at bedtime. Sleep starts anytime in the afternoon.”

“Good hygiene consists of starting to calm down the hours before bedtime,” she said. “Sleep doesn’t start at bedtime. Sleep starts anytime in the afternoon.”

Right before an individual falls asleep, Young suggests doing something not related to schoolwork. She suggests reading a book, doing yoga or doing something inspirational such as prayer or meditation.

“Sometimes doing yoga or something relaxing two hours prior to sleep might help the body go into a sleep relaxation mode that promotes a good sleep,” she said.

Young also recommends getting your house ready for bed.

“Going into a room in a cool environment helps because the brain has certain hormones that respond to heat and cold,” she said. “So, a cool room will also help to promote sleep. It increases the metabolism and that helps to feel a sensation of well being in relaxation.”

This also means not looking at screens before bed and removing other light sources from the room that will invoke stress before bed.

“Our retina, which is our eye nerves behind the pupils, perceive the light, and when you have less light, then you will also have that sensation of turning down body activities to go into low metabolism and going into sleep,” she said.

A good sleeping pattern can prevent future health problems such as, obesity, diabetes and seizures.

Since Young is a neurologist, she is an expert in seizure disorders. She said the most commonly seen seizure patients are ones who have not had a good night’s rest. The patients are sleep deprived because they were either studying too late, partying all night or have been playing video games too late without a good night’s sleep.

“The nerve connections truly become more hyper-excitable, and that promotes that the brain has more of a chance for more abnormal electrical conduction, and that leads to seizures,” she said.

It can be common for people who have not slept continuously to start experiencing seizures due to their absence of sleep. Seizures can be avoided if the brain has a good night of sleep.

“One of the first things we tell patients with epilepsy, besides to take their medication daily and don’t miss it, is to have a good night of sleep,” she said.

This advice will also benefit non-epileptic teens. Young said she knows if teens start practicing healthy sleeping habits from an early age, they will be benefiting their future health.