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Snooze or Lose - For Teens and Their Parents

Renee Bertken & Abby Adams
Mission Principle: Pursuit of the Balance of Rigor & Joy
School Nurse Renee Bertken and Communications Manager Abby Adams offer parents information and advice about healthy sleep habits.
Daylight Savings Time had many of us dragging, but this week students, faculty and staff are refreshed after a week of good vacation sleep. For some, weekends and vacations are the only time they get a good night’s rest.
Here’s a question for parents (by a safely anonymous show of hands): Do you frequently remind your children about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep, yet stay up too late yourself?
Rest assured, this post is about sleep, not hypocrisy! For many people, it is hard to fit everything you want to do into a single day, so your day often stretches into nighttime. Many of us share the same sleep challenge our teenagers have, although adolescents face the additional dilemma of biological sleep patterns constantly enticing them to stay up late.
A recent article* by authors Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane makes a case for sleep that can appeal to people of all ages. In it, they liken the brain to a garden, and its hardworking glial cells to gardeners who prune and maintain the brain’s synaptic connections.
During sleep, glial cells snip, weed and rake up clippings, leaving your brain tidier and more able to take in new information. That’s why we often feel more alert and able to think clearly after a good night’s sleep. Alternatively, not enough sleep can leave the brain sluggish and cluttered:
“Thinking with a sleep-deprived brain is like hacking your way through a dense jungle with a machete. It’s overgrown, slow going, exhausting.”
For students, keeping the brain clear and ready to accept new information is essential. Adults need to make space for new information too – especially since, as we age, our brain’s garden gets crowded with more information “flora.”
Here are some collected tips for helping your teen (and you) get better sleep:
1)    Get the electronics out of the bedroom. This is a tough one, but try to keep sleeping spaces quiet, peaceful and screen-free. Falling asleep with a cell phone in hand is a bad habit many teens have.
2)    Keep the bedroom cool. Body temperature declines during sleep (to save energy for the gardening crew) and lowering our body temperature can help us fall asleep. The ideal temperature is generally somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees.
3)    Keep the bedroom dark. Trade nightlights and doors opening onto lit hallways for a truly dark sleeping space. Studies have shown that artificial evening light can suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate the sleep cycle and makes us feel drowsy. In the morning, be sure to open the curtains and let the light in.
4)    No caffeine, but maybe an evening snack. It’s easy to forget that caffeine ingested up to 6 hours before bedtime can affect sleep quality. That means a soda your child might drink at 5pm can keep them awake at 11. In contrast, a high-carbohydrate snack an hour before bedtime can clear the way for tryptophan to enter the brain. Tryptophan helps create serotonin, a partner to melatonin in regulating sleep.
5)    Unplug and relax before bed. While most teens today equate relaxing with phone time, suggest instead that they do some light stretches or read. If you or your child read before bed, go the old-fashioned route and read ink on paper rather than pixels on a screen.
An experiment worth trying
Your response to the above suggestions may be “I’ve tried to get them to do this, but they just won’t!” As we know so well, adolescents often tune out or challenge the validity of adult advice. Plus, they may truly believe they don’t need as much sleep as we say they do. Encourage your family members to target an earlier bedtime and follow the above sleep practices for one week to see if they feel any different. Give them an incentive. Walk the walk and try the experiment yourself. Afterwards, have a family conversation.
Your teen may realize that getting a good night’s sleep can help their coursework, their athletic performance, and even their friendships. And, while it may not result in immediate or wholesale changes to their nightly habits, they will better understand the costs and benefits of their choices.
Finally, if you try the experiment and it helps you change your own habits, that’s no small victory for your household. You will have more energy during the day and your child’s imperfect sleep choices won’t keep you up at night!
Renee Bertken, MSN, RN                                     Abby Adams
School Nurse                                                      Communications Manager
Here is some additional data on sleep recently collected by Renee’s nursing students at San Diego State University, where she teaches Community Health. The students performed research at Santana High School to support the Healthy People 2020 goal “to increase public knowledge of how adequate sleep and treatment of sleep disorders improve health, productivity, wellness, quality of life, and safety on roads and in the workplace”.
A few interesting facts the students discovered in their research:
  • There is a positive relationship of sleep and health-related quality of life.
  • Inadequate sleep is associated with heart disease, hypertension, obesity and diabetes. 
  • Studies have found a connection between reduced sleep quality and adolescent depression.
  • There is a study that the "media-related” impact on sleep is directly connected to the light emitted by electronic devices. The exposure to light-emitting devices at bedtime contributes to hyper-arousal and decreased sleepiness  by suppressing melatonin as well as delaying the circadian phase of the melatonin rhythm.
  • Many cell phones have a 'night shift’ mode which changes the light tones (from the bright blue that keeps us up).
*Fastcompany.com, Your Brain Has a “Delete” Button - Here’s How to Use It, May 2016