The Arrowhead

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The Vicious Sleep Cycle

Why sleep is so important, yet difficult, for teenagers to obtain and five steps for an improved snooze

Sarah Brown/The Arrowhead

Sarah Brown/The Arrowhead


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It is the quintessential island of a teenage room—the one place that is not covered in clean and dirty laundry, papers, cups, and various other odds and ends.

It is the one place that instantly relaxes, the one place that instantly warms, the one place where I feel completely, totally, utterly safe.  My glorious bed.

As I struggled to concoct a topic for my Arrowhead editorial, the snuggly temptation stood staunchly behind me, luring me into its grasp. Rather than succumb, crawl into my fleece sheets, and sleep, I Googled why the nagging desire to slip into bed exists, and why teenagers seem to be chronically tired when all of our teachers in the morning seem just…so…cheery.  And of course, why tearing myself out of bed on a Monday morning is just about as difficult as amputating a limb.

Generally, sleep seems to be a major inconvenience. We spend one-third of our lives with closed eyes, snoozing away while time passes and the world turns. However, it seems that sleep is important despite the low priority we often rank it.  Of the several theories that explain the origin and purpose of sleep, I will touch upon the few most prominent.

As we all know, the only time we reprehensible, rambunctious teenagers are not making trouble is when we are sleeping. It turns out that sleeping to keep out of trouble has an evolutionary origin.  Deathly still during the night, predators were less likely to find us.  This stillness also prevented us from blundering through the night, encountering dangers insurmountable in disorienting darkness.

A second theory dictates that sleep became a necessary way to conserve energy. Sleeping prevented us from expending our energy during the pitch-black time of night when catching food to restore that energy was most difficult.

Some researchers believe that sleep is “restorative.”  Animals that are denied sleep for a prolonged period of time just…die. Or, according to the Brian Plasticity Theory, our brain reorganizes and develops while we sleep.

It is verified, however, that the body does not turn off during sleep. In fact, in some areas of the brain are more active when we are sleeping than when we are awake. Other times, we are wide awake when others, namely our parents, believe we should be feeling sleepy.

We all have a biological clock. This internal clock regulates when we feel sleepy and when we feel awake, a schedule independent of the time we fell asleep the night before, or how many hours we have been awake. After conducting several sleep studies, researchers Mary Carskadon and Bill Dement discovered that the biological clock and the resulting “sleep-wakefulness cycle” keeps certain age groups awake at different times, regardless of their tiredness.

When children are under the age of 10, they fall asleep in the earlier evening, much like adults. However, during the pre-teen and teen years, our biological clocks alter slightly, causing alertness at 9 or 10 P.M. The staggered patterns of sleepiness or sleeplessness may also be evolutionary, as members of the herd were most alert at different times of day to keep watch and protect the rest of the family.

So what does all this mean for teenagers and the allure of warm sheets and soft pillows? The teenage sleep cycle is adjusted by about two hours so we are inclined to wake up later and go to sleep later, making that 6:00 A.M. alarm even more of a beast. Essentially, the staggered timing of the school system works opposite our nature.

Mondays simply compound the problem. When we stay up and wake up later on the weekends, our biological clocks are pulled awry by two or more hours.  Combine that with the problem of being a teenage sleeper, and well, we all know what it feels like to wake up on a Monday morning.

Unfortunately, staying up late is not limited to the weekends, especially with high school students inundated with homework and after school activities. University of California, Berkeley conducted a study that shows the detriment of staying up too late—specifically, past 11:30 P.M. on school nights. 30% of the study subjects pushed past the 11:30 safe zone, and as a result, experienced heightened symptoms of depression and “lower cumulative GPAs at graduation.” Negative effects of sleep deprivation during high school may last years after, affecting students in college and beyond.

The Journal of School Health reported that 90% of teens sleep less than 9 hours and 10% less than 6 hours per night.   The recommended number sky-high at 9 hours, it seems impossible to procure such a lengthy period of shut-eye.

A teenager myself, of course, I understand the impossibilities of getting 9 hours of sleep.  However, I compiled the healthy sleeping tips that are most harmonious with the teenage lifestyle that could potentially help us fall asleep faster or make the most of the hours we snatch here and there.

  1. Dim the lights a few hours before you go to bed.
  2. Do not nap for prolonged periods of time too close to the evening.  Doing so will mess up your normal sleep cycle.
  3. Save reading that English novel for last. Refrain from using technology 30 minutes before you go to sleep, including video games, TV, cellphones, computers, and basically everything else that we are plugged into for the majority of the day.
  4. When you hit Starbucks or Dunkin after school, order decaff.  Caffeine too close to bedtime can confuse sleep patterns.
  5. Embrace the light.  Exposing yourself to light immediately in the morning helps your body wake up.

Although it sometimes seems that high school may be an experiment to see how long we can exist without the proper amount of sleep, caring for our brains and bodies is ultimately up to us, a care that yields long-term and short-term benefits. An extra hour of studying at the expense of sleep may actually hurt academic performance rather than help, for example.

Now, it is time to take my own advice and get some sleep, or I risk being a hypocrite.  So, good night dear Arrowhead readers, and remember that falling prey to long naps and late nights is not a substitute for earlier bedtimes, bright mornings, and dimmed evenings.

Changing our habits may be the only way that the night owls can survive in a world of early birds.

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1 Comment

One Response to “The Vicious Sleep Cycle”

  1. Marc on December 3rd, 2015 6:45 pm

    Great article!

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