“The amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more,” Wilson Mizner, an American playwright, once wrote.
Sleep is essential for survival, and most of us could benefit from at least five minutes more. Without an adequate amount of sleep, our minds and bodies suffer. Sleep influences the immune system, mood, memory, attention, response time, and many other functions.
How long can you go without sleep? The world record for not sleeping is held by Randy Gardner, a 17-year-old high school student who stayed awake 264 hours (11 days) for a science fair project in 1964. Teenagers rock! But Gardner’s task should not be replicated by others.
So how much sleep is enough? Teenagers require eight to 10 hours of sleep a night, but only seven out of 10 teens report getting this much. Excuses, excuses, excuses. ... Everyone has a sleepless night once in a while, and occasionally, the excuse is a science fair project! But there are other legitimate excuses for sleep problems:
Melatonin is a hormone-like substance produced by the brain that tells the body when it’s time for sleep. In adolescents, melatonin is produced later in the evening than it is in children and adults.
Stress, including worrying about not getting enough sleep, can upset sleep.
Disorders such as periodic limb movement disorder, restless legs syndrome, and obstructive sleep apnea.
Medical problems such as gastroesophageal reflux and medication side effects are possible causes.
Emotional issues including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
Heredity. Insomnia is 43% to 55% inheritable. Sometimes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
How can you help your teen get more sleep? To encourage good sleep habits, help your teen develop a sleep routine, like unwinding before bed by reading or listening to music. Then shhhh! The bedroom should be quiet. And dark – nix the bright clock! Use of electronic devices in bed is a big NO as blue light from screens can suppress melatonin production. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding exposure to screens for at least one hour before bedtime.
What’s in your kitchen? Foods and drinks with caffeine can interrupt sleep. On the flip side, some foods and drinks contain chemicals and properties that may promote sleep when consumed two to three hours before bedtime including:
Nuts: Almonds are a source of melatonin and magnesium; and walnuts have a high content of melatonin and serotonin.
Proteins: Turkey contains high amounts of tryptophan, while fatty fish has high amounts of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.
White rice has a high glycemic index.
Kiwis and tart cherry juice contain serotonin and antioxidants.
Chamomile tea has antioxidants.
Milk has calcium and melatonin. Fun fact: When cows are milked at night, their milk has more melatonin!
Be careful with the medications for treating insomnia. These should be for adults only! They can be habit-forming and increase the risk of serious injuries caused by sleep walking, next-day drowsiness, and impaired driving; they are not appropriate for teenagers!
Short-term use of melatonin is deemed safe. In studies, adverse effects included headache, dizziness, and decreased appetite – all of which improved during the first week. What is not known is the safety of long-term use; concerns include morning drowsiness, interactions with other medications, and potential effects on growth and development. More research is still needed.
Even though melatonin can be purchased without a prescription, its use should be discussed with your teen’s primary care provider. The general rule is to start with the lowest dosage, such as 0.5 mg or 1 mg; rarely is more than 3 mg needed. It should be taken 30 to 90 minutes before bedtime. Melatonin comes in a variety of forms ― liquids, gummies, chewables, capsules, and tablets. These supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and therefore it cannot be guaranteed that what you see is what you get.
When discussed with your child’s doctor, melatonin can help teenagers get rest when they’re experiencing a bump in the road or need help resetting their sleep clocks upon returning to school after long breaks. By helping teens fall asleep early there is a chance that they will be happy and smiling for their 7:30 a.m. classes! #whenpigsfly
Rima Himelstein is a pediatrician and adolescent-medicine specialist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.