Beware The Illnesses Teens Risk When They Don't Get Enough Sleep

by Martin Reed Patient Advocate

A study published in the Journal of Sleep Research finds teenagers with shorter sleep durations are at a higher risk for common illness compared to those who sleep for longer.

The prospective, field-based study involved 56 teenagers between 14- and 19-years of age. The teenagers were from five schools across the U.S. state of Rhode Island. Each participant wore an actigraph unit which measured sleep duration for an average period of three months. The teenagers were also interviewed each week, with interviews including 14 health event questions.

Researchers found that teenagers with shorter sleep durations reported more bouts of illness compared to those with longer sleep durations.

The following illness categories were reported over the course of the study:

  • 77 percent reported cold symptoms

  • 54 percent reported pain symptoms such as headache and sore throat

  • 44 percent reported gastroenteritis symptoms such as gastritis, nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea

Other reported illnesses included sinus infections, strep throat, and allergies.

Interesting, boys reported significantly fewer illness bouts compared to girls. This isn't the first study to find a link between shorter sleep durations and negative health effects.

So, what can we, as parents, do to improve the sleep of our teenagers?** 1. Encourage a regular (and appropriate) sleep schedule.**

Wondering how much sleep a teenager needs? The recommended sleep duration for teenagers between 14- and 17-years of age is 8 to 10 hours (but 7 to 11 hours may be appropriate, depending on your teen).

Observe when your teens go to bed, when they get up and ask them how much sleep they're getting (asking them to keep a sleep diary may be helpful). Then, depending on their answers, work with them to create a suitable sleep schedule.

Bed times and arising times can be deceptive; if your teens go to bed at 11pm and get out of bed at 7am, they are allotting eight hours for sleep. This is on the low end of the recommended sleep duration, but you need to consider how many of those eight hours were actually spent sleepingIdeally, you'll want to work with your teens to increase their average sleep duration. Add one hour on to their average sleep duration and you have the ideal amount of time they should be allotting for sleep (just make sure they aren't allotting less than seven hours).

Time allotted for sleep is measured from “lights out” to the time they get out of bed in the morning.

So, as an example, let's say your teens average about eight hours of sleep each night. In that case, they should be allotting nine hours for sleep (eight plus one). So, bed times and out-of-bed times could be:

  • Lights out at 9pm, out of bed at 6am

  • Lights out at 9:30pm, out of bed at 6:30am

  • Lights out at 10pm, out of bed at 7am

This will help you ensure that your teens are allotting enough time for sleep each night. Ideally, you want to make sure they also stick to the same bedtime and out of bed time every day.

2. Limit the use of electronic devices in the bedroom

The blue light emitted from electronic devices such as televisions and smartphones can interfere with the body's sleep system.

That’s not all. Phone notification alerts and late-night messaging conversations with friends can further disrupt sleep. Ideally, electronic devices shouldn't be used in the hour before bed. Getting your teen to comply with this may be difficult, though!

As a compromise, you may want to create a rule that doesn't allow electronic devices to be used in the bedroom from bedtime until morning.

Discussing the importance of sleep with your teens and involving them in any subsequent improvement plan is key. You don't want to be issuing orders, since this often only encourages a teenager to do the exact opposite!

If your teen seems to fall sick more often than his or her friends and you suspect lack of sleep is to blame, explain that improving sleep may help reduce sickness. Explain the advantages of positive sleep hygiene and the benefits of getting enough sleep on a regular basis. Work with your teen to create a sleep schedule and routine that works.

Martin Reed
Meet Our Writer
Martin Reed

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Coach, an eight-week course that combines online sleep education with individual sleep coaching. His course helps clients improve their sleep so they can enjoy a better life with more energy and start each day feeling happy, healthy, rested, and refreshed. Martin also runs a free sleep training course that has helped over 5,000 insomniacs. He holds a master’s degree in health and wellness education and studied clinical sleep health at the University of Delaware.