Sleep deprivation being a health issue in adolescence is no surprise. We hear repeated reports on cellphone use and excessive video gaming as contributors to sleep deprivation, but how many pediatricians are actually warning their patient during annual exams about the health impact of sleep deprivation?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published its policy on sleep and recommended adolescents get at least 8.5 hours of sleep per night and that school start time for middle schools be 8:30 a.m. ( Pediatrics 2014;134:642-9 ). Despite this recommendation, more than 60% of U.S. schools have start times earlier than 8:00 a.m. A recent study also showed that 59% of 6th-8th graders and 87% of high school students obtained less the recommended 8.5 hours.

The reasoning behind the recommendation was based on the natural change in sleep cycle that occurs during adolescence, in which the circadian rhythm changes, resulting in decreased secretion of melatonin and delayed onset of sleep. With later start times, adolescents actually get up to an extra hour of sleep, which in turn results in fewer absences, improved focus, concentration, and better behavior ( Pediatrics 2014 [doi:10.1542/peds.2014-1697] ).

But beyond biologic cause for delayed sleep, social media, texting, and video games further impact the amount of sleep obtained, which leaves the majority of teens sleep deprived. Watching TV more than 3 hours per night impacts your ability not only to fall asleep, but to stay asleep, which again increases daytime sleepiness. Many may think that the “weekend catch-up” might ameliorate the deprivation, but studies show that the inconsistency of appropriate sleep further disrupts the wake-sleep cycles and further reduces the secretion of melatonin.

So how does sleep deprivation impact health? The obvious increased daytime sleepiness which results in poor concentration and focus is well known, and clearly contributes to the number of car accidents in this age group. But there are clear physiologic changes that occur when there is inadequate sleep that result in increased risk for diabetes, obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease, and even Alzheimer’s ( Psychiatry Res. 2010;176:34-9 ; Sleep 2004;27:1351-8 ; Endocr. Dev. 2010;17:11-21 ). Lack of sleep has shown alterations in metabolic profiles, such as insulin, cortisol, and leptin, which lead to insulin resistance, increased sympathetic nervous system activity, increased hunger, and decreased satiety ( Pediatrics 2014 [doi:10.1542/peds.2014-1697] ).

The resulting lack of sleep in adolescence has cause increased intake of caffeine as well. Recent surveys show that caffeine use has skyrocketed this age group. If it is taken in the form of energy drinks, coffee, or soda, people who drink excessive caffeine are twice as likely to have sleep issues and shortened REM sleep ( J. Adolesc. 2009;32:1189-207 ). It suppresses appetite and has withdrawal symptoms that further increase daytime sleepiness.

Adolescents also show increased use of sleep aids and stimulant drinks that have significant side effects of residual daytime sleepiness and tachycardia, respectively. So the treatment is further impacting the problem.

As physicians, we need to emphasize the physiologic impact of sleep deprivation and how it impacts many of the symptoms with which patients present. Many patients may overlook limited sleep as a cause of their symptoms.

Natural alternatives for improved sleep include chamomile, passionflower, or valerian, which come as a tea, capsule, liquid, or essential oil. Magnesium with or without calcium also is commonly used. Although all are deemed generally safe, there is no definitive effective dose in pediatrics, and they are not without side effects, so caution should be used when recommending these. Almond milk is a rich source of calcium, and calcium in the brain gets converted to melatonin.

Suggesting to parents that cellphones, video games, and computers be removed from the bedrooms by 9 p.m. will allow for the required 8.5 hours sleep. Avoiding sleeping until noon on weekends will improve sleep cycles. Avoiding caffeinated drinks and eating at late hours also will improve the quality of sleep and lessen daytime sleepiness. But the best advice to parents is for them to be good role models, and for them to get the appropriate amount of sleep, so that they also can avoid the hazards of sleep deprivation.

Dr. Pearce is a pediatrician in Frankfort, Ill. E-mail her at Scan this QR code or go to