Understanding the Teenage Circadian Shift or Sleep Wake Cycle

As a mother of three sons and 14 grandchildren, I have found that sleep is in-between the words “banana split” and “cheeseburger and french fries” in the teenager’s top requirement list-and to heck with the alphabetizing. And if I were a heavy-betting person, I would say that our country’s low-educational scores and teenage issues are due to either sleeping students in class or students who are so tired from being awakened early they are incapable of learning even if they were not asleep.

Recent studies regarding the irregular sleeping patterns of teenagers have proved that the majority of them are not only massively sleep deprived, but they also have demonstrated that a teenager’s lack of sleep has a lot to do with their detrimental levels of mood swings, moodiness, impulsivity, and depression. But the real question that seems to be the focus of these current studies is whether the teenager’s biology or their behavior is causing sleepless late nights. What is known, according to recent studies, is that as the teenager finally does get to sleep their body releases a hormone considered essential to their growth spurt, while the lack of this hormone changes the personality of the teenager entirely.

Parents, teachers, and researchers are slowly beginning to recognize is that the severity of teenagers’ sleep deprivation and its prevalence is becoming a matter of serious concern, possibly answering some of the questions about their violence and unresolved behavior issues over the past decade or so. Even in adults or children, the mind and body work in a different manner during the day as compared to its functions during the nights, which is where the problem initially develops in the teenager.

The timing mechanism of the teenager’s brain is known to regulate the body’s functions during a 24-hour period, as in most adults or children. Laboratory sleep studies of normal adults and children show that the heart rate usually will fall during the night, with blood pressure becoming lower and the urine production lessening. But the very latest research has suggested that the hormonal “mess” during puberty causes a teenager to actively crave sleep, but cannot sleep during the nights until about 2 a.m. or 4 a.m.causing a parent’s worst nightmare as they themselves are attempting to get a good night’s sleep.

The teenager’s “circadian rhythm” is similar to an internal biological clock that they have no control over. In fact, every person has one, but during puberty it automatically resets itself to do its own thing. The thing to keep in mind is that the word circadian refers to the daily repetition of the biological functions of the body, such as sleeping or waking patterns. The circadian sleep patterns and changes in a teenager’s sleeping cycles are brought about by the melatonin levels, causing the teenager to become tired early in the morning when they are preparing for school, instead of late evening or early night when they should be going to bed.

The main culprit of this teenage condition seems to be melatonin. The beginning levels of melatonin increases in an adult about 10 p.m., where in the teenager it will begin to increase approximately at 1 a.m. at the earliest. A pineal gland hormone, melatonin, aids in our biorhythm regulation and helps us sleep at night. Believe it or not, it is normally enhanced by darkness, but when the body becomes exposed to light it decreases. Over time, excessive nights of missed sleep in a teenager will cause a condition called “sleep deficit,” which causes the teenager to not be able to concentrate, study, or even work wellcombined with serious emotional problems. Teenagers require approximately 9 hours or so of sleep to function properly, and they are not getting it. Going to bed in the early morning hours, yet being woken by their parent for school before 8 a.m. means they are barely getting 5 to 6 hours of sleep.

Discovered in the 1950s, much as been discovered about melatonin, along with the biorhythm regulation of the body being affected by high levels of bodily stress. In studies, pharmacological doses of melatonin have been found to stimulate the natural antioxidant system while also offering protection to the DNA inside of cells. Alzheimer’s disease, brain injuries due to low blood or oxygen flow, brain injury due to toxins, and some types of Parkinson’s disease have been shown to be reduced with the correct level of the hormone melatonin.

The question still being approached in the studies is whether the teenager’s biological clock or their behavior alone, brings about the melatonin delay. As the teenager stays up during the night because they cannot sleep, usually they are either on the computer, watching television or tapes, or playing games-all of which stimulates the brain and allows light exposure to the body, which in turn prevents the melatonin from working on a normal level. The jury is still out, but a major theory is that the teenager’s body is keeping them awake against their will, and forcing an unusual sleeping pattern on them.

“The eyes are open, but the brains are asleep,” says Mary Carskadon, director of chronobiology at E.P. Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island and a professor in the psychology and human behavior department at Brown University School of Medicine.