No rest for the bleary: Underestimating sleep could lead to dangerous health effects

(Top) Having been a teacher and principal, Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom of the University of Minnesota knows the demands facing today’s teenager. Her advice: Set a healthy sleep routine and stick with it. (Middle and bottom) Illustrations by Kimberly Martinez and Isaura Lira Greene.
“If you really want to do well in school, you should not be staying up late and only get four hours of sleep to get your papers done. You ought to be planning a little bit further ahead so you can get more sleep, because then you will actually do better in school.”

With sports and speech team piled on top of rigorous Advanced Placement and Honors classes, Rachel Schmidt’s crazy schedule doesn’t allow much room for sleep.

If she’s lucky, the 15-year-old Eastview High School student might be able to squeeze in a nap before facing a mountain of Chemistry, AP U.S. History, Honors American Literature, Algebra 2 and Spanish homework.

“I also will get up during the early morning to work after sleeping for about three or four hours. Then I will do some work and go back to bed,” Schmidt said. “Depending on how much homework I have, I may do this a second time, but usually I only need to wake up once to get all of my work done.”

Being habitually active at night, Schmidt typically gets her “second wind” around 11:30 p.m. For most parents, this is a time when they expect their kids to be asleep. But Schmidt has conditioned herself to follow a new routine—one where distractions and drowsiness won’t lead to sloppy assignments.

“I think that it’s better to break up your work,” Schmidt said, “so that you aren’t exhausted versus pushing through and doing poorly because the only thing that you can think about is getting in your bed.”

The reason sleep can be so easily sacrificed? Schmidt has big goals for herself: Four-year-college, medical school and a future career as a crime lab technician.

By establishing a strong work ethic now, Schmidt said she’s hoping “that it won’t be hard to do later on in life.”

“I do it because it allows me to get done what I need to and still function,” she said. “There are only 24 hours in a day and I do my best to make the most of them.”


Although this sleep schedule works for Schmidt, how well does it work for her health?

Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the Center for Applied Research and Education Improvement at the University of Minnesota, said that on average, teens should be getting at least eight consecutive hours of sleep each night.

During these eight hours, the teen experiences stages of “non-Rapid Eye Movement” (non-REM), a gradual movement toward deeper sleep. After about two hours of deep sleep, the brain becomes incredibly active, leading to Rapid Eye Movement (REM).

“You have about four periods of REM sleep,” Wahlstrom said. “It’s where all of the processing (in) your brain (takes place) for all of the factual information you learn during the day before.”

The information that your brain processes comes in as bits and fragments. So when a teen gets less than eight hours of sleep—or in Schmidt’s case, divides sleep up—it cuts down the amount of time the brain is able to “file away” important information, leading to disorganization.

“It’s a big bunch of spaghetti. It’s a mush,” Wahlstrom said.

Michelle Chen, a 15-year-old Eastview High School student, usually feels exhausted after 10:45 p.m. and can’t find the motivation to finish her homework. She also said that it’s very hard for her to wake up in the morning, around 6 a.m., to head off to school.

What Chen is experiencing is called the “Sleep Phase Shift.” This biological phenomenon causes adolescents to release melatonin (the brain’s sleep serum) around 10:45 p.m. to about 8:30 a.m., a full 90 minutes later than adults or pre-teens.

Because of this shift, teens find it difficult to fall asleep before 10:45 p.m. and completely wake up before 8:30 a.m., as their brains and bodies are still in biological sleep mode, Wahlstrom said.


Besides natural factors, there are also external sources such as homework, exams and extracurricular activities that prohibit teens from getting enough sleep.

The demands of technical theatre often create difficulties for Chen.

“Tech reduces the amount of time I have to do homework, which in turn sacrifices the amount of time that I am able to sleep,” she said.

Because teens are living in a much more technologically advanced era, electronic devices are also a big inhibitor of sleep patterns, Wahlstrom said.

Schmidt makes sure to turn her phone ringer off before she sleeps so that it isn’t distracting. However, Wahlstrom said that even if a phone is on “vibrate” or “silent,” it could still wake a person up.

“The blue light that’s coming off of the screen of your iPad, your computer or your iPhone is an alerting signal,” Wahlstrom said. “It actually signals the brain, ‘You gotta wake up, it’s morning.’”

Since homework often is the reason why teens don’t get enough sleep, it’s not unusual to hear a teenager complaining, “Ugh. I have so much. Don’t teachers know that we have lives, too?”

Having been a teacher and a principal, Wahlstrom has heard the homework complaint before. She doesn’t think that teachers are necessarily at fault, but they should learn more about teens and sleep patterns.

“And maybe they might cut back a little on their homework,” she added with a smile.

While a few late night or early morning cram sessions might not be the end of the world, teens that consistently get less than the necessary amount of sleep could face potentially life-threatening health problems.

According to research presented at the University of Minnesota’s recent Sleep and Teens Conference—a national gathering in October that included experts on human fatigue—teenagers with less than six hours of sleep drive with a reaction time equivalent to having a blood alcohol content level of .05. They’re also two to three times more likely to get depression and/or experience suicidal thoughts, which makes them more susceptible to drugs, alcohol, risky behaviors and obesity, Wahlstrom said.

In addition, some teens begin to have trouble in their social lives because they are more irritable and stressed. They can also find it harder to relate with friends.

“I like being well rested because I feel better and it puts me in a good mood,” Schmidt said. With the proper amount of sleep, she’s also more alert and doesn’t fidget or daydream as much.


In order to accommodate the Sleep Phase Shift and help teens get more out of their day, schools across the nation have been making changes to their start time.

Edina schools made the first change in 1996, Wahlstrom said. The school district changed the start time from 7:20 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and found dramatic improvements in the performance of its students. According to Wahlstrom’s research, students were awake and ready to learn, there was less depression—and perhaps most telling of all—
92 percent of parents in Edina said their teenagers were “easier to live with.”

More schools in the Twin Cities have been making modest changes, but “every bit of improvement helps kids,” Wahlstrom said.

Despite those positive effects, Chen remains skeptical.

“This would only cause those who already sleep late to sleep even later, which would still cause them to be tired and not be awake anyway,” she said. “Students who value sleep and want to be ready to learn will sleep earlier and ensure they are awake in the morning either way. And students who don’t, will not.”

Whatever the sleep pattern, Wahlstrom advised teens to remain consistent since the body loves routine. Though it might not be ideal for everyone, Schmidt’s early morning method could at least allow her body and brain to adjust to interruption over time.

According to Wahlstrom, the number one way to get enough sleep is to manage your time and plan ahead.

“If you really want to do well in school, you should not be staying up late and only get four hours of sleep to get your papers done,” she said. “You ought to be planning a little bit further ahead so you can get more sleep, because then you will actually do better in school.”

Or look at it this way: Before you compromise a good night’s rest, think about how it will make you feel the next day. Does it make sense to stay up and study for a final that you’ll end up yawning through anyway?

Sleep on it.