The Importance of Sleep


November 14, 2023 | jamesclinic

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Article at a Glance

  • Many young people are chronically sleep deprived and this puts them at higher risk for physical and mental health problems.
  • Sufficient sleep is necessary for adequate brain function.
  • There are a number of steps you can take to ensure your child gets adequate restorative sleep.

Kids and Teens are Chronically Sleep Deprived

Based on a 2014 National Sleep Foundation study, more than half of parents reported their children are not getting enough sleep.  And the problem increases with age.  Based on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) 2015 national and state Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 60% of middle schoolers are not getting enough sleep on school nights and more than 70% of high school students are not getting restorative sleep. 

This may be due to any number of reasons including extracurricular activities, homework, online activities, or difficulty winding down at the end of a busy day.  The consequences, however, are clear.  The CDC reports that children and adolescents that do not get adequate sleep are at higher risk for physical and mental health problems including obesity, type-2 diabetes, mental health problems, poor attention, and low academic performance. 

Our Brains are Hard at Work When we Sleep

Our brains do not “turn off” when we sleep.  In fact, our brains are very much “turned on” and very busy performing vital functions during this time.  As examples, our glymphatic system and microglia are hard at work clearing toxins in the brain that accumulate during the day.  Without necessary restful sleep, brain cells may become depleted of energy and cellular byproducts may contribute to neural malfunction.  Sleep may also serve as a time for strengthening neural connections that, without sleep, may atrophy and die off.

 Sufficient sleep is associated with improved cognitive functions including memory, attention, working memory, and other executive functions.  Studies also suggest sleep is associated with creativity and improved divergent thinking (i.e., seeing patterns and solving problems).

 Sleep also appears to be intimately intertwined with our mood.  Sleep problems, either too much or too little, are often experienced by those with depression and anxiety.  And for many of these individuals, when sleep is corrected symptoms of depression and anxiety resolve without further treatment.  This may be due to the fact that parts of the brain governing our sleep-wake cycle, and associated neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin), are also implicated in mood disorders.

Ways to Support Sufficient, Restorative Sleep

So just how much sleep do kids and teens need?  Well, that is going to vary a bit as the exact amount of sleep one needs is different from person to person due to biological factors as well as for the same person from day to day depending on their diet, physical and mental activity, stress levels, and the amount of recovery required.  Here, however, are some general guidelines based on age.

  • 10-13 hours for 3-5 year-olds
  • 9-12 hours for 6-12 year-olds
  • 8-10 hours for 13-18 year-olds

A growing number of people, including children, seem to be taking over the counter melatonin supplements to counter act sleep problems.  Unfortunately, these substances can build up in your body and their long-term use can result in increased tolerance (i.e., requiring larger doses to achieve the same effect) and other problems.  Because the effect of these supplements are still unknown, many sleep experts discourage their over the counter use. 

So what can we do?  Since sleep and wakefulness are influenced by different neurotransmitter signals in the brain, foods and medicines that change the balance of these signals affect whether we feel alert or drowsy and how well we sleep.  Caffeine is an obvious example of this.

Another factor, however, that may be less obvious are fluorescent light bulbs and blue light emitting devices (i.e., smart phone, tablet, computer, and television), which send signals to our pineal gland (i.e., responsible for melatonin production) that it is still day time and delays the onset of sleep.  And in today’s digital age, this is a serious problem. 

One thing we can due is install black out blinds or curtains to create an environment conducive for sleep.  Next, while your child in teen will not like it, they should not have electronic devices in their bedrooms.  Not only are they distractions that keep them up (e.g., playing games or checking social media) but the blue light emitted from the device itself is likely impacting sleep quality. 

Ideally, a person is off of all blue light emitting device for two hours leading up to bed time.  If this is not possible (e.g., they have sports practice and still need to do homework), then use an app like F.lux or Apple’s Nightshift to not only turn down the brightness of the light but turn down the blue light and increase warmer tones. 

Other environmental factors such as a comfortable but firm mattress, cool temperature, and a quiet environment are also helpful.  It is also important have consistent sleep patterns (i.e., going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time), avoiding strenuous physical activity late at night, and avoiding large meals close to bed time (i.e., ideally eating one’s last meal before the sun goes down).  All of this is considered part of good “sleep hygiene” or routines that support good sleep quality. 

For additional information on the importance of sleep and how to improve it, check out the Sleep Association at www.sleepassociation.org

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