Teenagers really do have a lot going on in their lives and now they have one more thing to worry about, sleep and weight gain when they try catching up on sleep. They’re already facing down adulthood, attempting to discover their place in society all while dealing with hormones and high school. So it’s easy to see why sleep may not be their highest priority. I’ve got two teenagers of my own, and let me tell you, it’s rough!

To complicate matters further, teens are biologically driven to stay up late and sleep in longer. We might view our teenager’s refusal to get out of bed as an act of rebellion (and it could be depending on the kid!) but it’s just as likely biology. It’s actually not heir fault!

The irony is, of course, that sleep is so vitally important at that stage of life. Generally, teens require about nine hours of sleep a night. If they can’t get it, they may suffer from lower test scores, anxiety, depression and can be more likely to engage in bad behaviors, including smoking and drinking. Poor sleep habits during adolescence may also lead to sleep problems later in life. So it’s important to instill the value of a good night’s sleep early on. 

A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics hammers this point home. While we already know that poor sleep quality and lack of sleep are linked with weight gain, this NEW study found that teenage girls who suffer “social jet lag”––a disparity between someone’s natural sleep pattern and the societal demand to wake up and be active at certain times (like the weekends!)––are at an increased risk of obesity. 

For this study, social jet lag was defined by cross-referencing the amount of time each teen slept on the weekend against the amount of time they slept on weekdays. About half of the study’s 804 teenagers slept an hour longer on weekends and nearly 14% slept two hours more. 

Each hour of social jet lag was associated with a 1.19 cm increase in waist size (That’s roughly half a pants size.) and increased their BMI (body mass index) by nearly half a point.  Boys, according to the research, aren’t at risk of social jet lag-related weight gain, but it’s not as if they’re immune to social jet lag, just less likely to gain weight because of it. 

Remember, sleep deprivation has significant effects on the body’s ability to lose and gain weight. Here’s a quick refresher of what sleep deprivation causes:

  • Slower metabolism: Your body uses its resources slowly and keeps weight on.
  • Greater appetite: Your body wonders why it’s awake but knows it needs food.
  • Hormone imbalance: You have 20% more hormones telling you to eat and 15% less hormones telling you that you are full.
  • Snack cravings: You crave high-fat, high-carb foods to help calm your brain down.

On a societal level, we can advocate for later school start times. There’s very strong evidence that starting school just a half hour later can help our kids get a proper amount of sleep. Research shows that later school start times increased the percentage of teenagers who slept eight hours or more on weekdays from 18% to 44% and led to a reduction in daytime sleepiness and caffeine use. 

At home, we can help our teens by allowing them to sleep in an hour or two later only on Saturday. This way, they will not completely mess up their circadian rhythms and cause problems, but on Sundays they need to get out of bed at the same time as they do during the week (within 30 minutes or so).  

But don’t let them sleep in longer than that. It will increase their overall sleepiness. Encourage them to go outside and get 15 minutes of sunlight within 30 minutes of waking up in the morning. They can do this by walking the family pet, getting the morning mail or just eating their breakfast outside. If it’s too cold, set up their breakfast near the window that gets the most light in the house. 

While I completely understand if you have a kid who is into video games or binge-watching Netflix shows, make sure they go outdoors or someplace for exercise on a daily basis. Daily exercise is the BEST way to improve teen sleep quality (and they need all the help they can get). Too much screen time and no exercise is a recipe for low-quality sleep. Also give them a 60-minute electronics curfew before bedtime, if possible. If not, have them wear blue light blocking glasses and that will protect them from the worst effects. 

Caffeine is another big issue with poor teenage sleep. When they get tired, they reach for the Monster, Red Bull or AMP to help them out, when in fact nothing could be worse for their developing brains. Do you have any idea how much caffeine your child is ingesting? If you don’t, you need to. While I think zero caffeine for kids is a GREAT policy, I know not everyone feels this way. It takes an average human about 6-8 hours to get half the caffeine out of their system, so if your child does use it, MAKE SURE they stop before 2 p.m. This way, it should have less of an effect on sleep quality. 

Because of the timing of the teenage biological clock, The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association recommend that middle and high schools begin at 8:30 a.m and not earlier. Communities that have later school start times boast better attendance, improved academic performance, higher graduation rates and fewer teen car crashes. 

A lot of people call the teenage years “an awkward age” and that certainly holds true for the teenage sleep pattern. Teens tend to be more alert in the evenings and are forced to get up in the mornings when their bodies aren’t ready. They don’t quite fit into our 9-to-5 society yet. As parents, we can try to be understanding of their unique biological situation and help them realize the importance of a steady sleep routine. They’ll thank us…eventually. 

Sweet Dreams,
Dr. Michael Breus 

“DMCA.com