Presenting issues: Sleep difficulties

December 30th 2018

Presenting issues: Sleep difficulties

“Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day”, according to Professor Matthew Walker of UC Berkeley and author of ‘Why We Sleep’.

Countless studies have demonstrated the benefits of sleep for concentration, memory, energy and mood. The impact of sleep deprivation is also well documented, having implications for all aspects of health, academic and work abilities, and behaviours that may put someone at risk. Sleep is one of the most vital contributors to our physical and mental wellbeing.

Sleep and adolescents

Sleep issues are one of the top reasons that young people (aged 12-25) in Ireland come to Jigsaw for support. Sleep difficulties are a serious threat to the well-being of adolescents, in terms of their health, safety and academic potential. Sleep expert Dr. Judith A. Owens of American Academy of Pediatrics has deemed it a public health issue:

 “Sleep is not optional. It’s a health imperative, like eating, breathing and physical activity. This is a huge issue for adolescents.”

Adolescents need more sleep than adults. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 8-10 hours for 14-17 year olds and 7-9 hours for 18-25 year olds.

The causes of sleep difficulties can be biological, behavioural or environmental.

Biological causes and circadian rhythms

Circadian rhythms play a key role in our sleeping patterns. They determine times of wakefulness and sleepiness throughout the day. Research has now shown that these rhythms change with age, with one of the most significant changes occurring for adolescents who experience a delay in sleep phases. This might explain why teenagers tend to be more alert at night and find it harder to wake earlier. Indeed, some researchers have long suggested that later school start times would be more beneficial for adolescents and increase academic performance. In a 2018 study, a Seattle High School delayed its start time by an hour and saw a 4.5% increase in the median grades of the students and an improvement in attendance.

Stress and behavioural problems

Personal factors such as stress and worrying can greatly affect our sleep.

For example, a 2011 study confirmed that stress and negative emotion during the day leads to sleep disturbances at night. Another study has suggested that it may be our emotional response to stress that is the best predictor of sleep complaints. If this is the case with a young person coming to Jigsaw, we help them understand the root cause of worry or stress and then try to manage it. 

As part of the second My World Survey we plan to ask young people about their sleep, and look at the relationship between our sleep and mental health. The findings from this study will be published later this year

The environment

Sleep issues can arise from the use of devices that emit blue light from screens. The light leads our brain to suppress melatonin which is the neurotransmitter that initiates sleep. Many experts advise against using mobile phones and other devices an hour before bed.

Other factors that will affect your sleep include caffeine, alcohol, and failing to have a regular sleep and wake time. Exercise during the day and a cool room at night is also recommended for sleep problems.

Other resources for sleep:

HSE guide on getter better sleep

British Council Better Sleep Guide

The British Academy of Sound Therapy has deemed UK band Marconi Union’s song ‘Weightless’ to be ‘the most relaxing tune ever’. The song, developed by the band with sound therapists, reportedly eases anxiety and may even help sleep.

This blog post was influenced by the below research:

Shochat, T., Cohen-Zion, M., & Tzischinsky, O. (2014). Functional consequences of inadequate sleep in adolescents: A systematic review. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 18:75-87.

Wittmann, M., Dinich, J., Merrow, M., & Roenneberg, T. (2006). Social jetlag: Misalignment of biological and social time. Chronobiology International, 23(1-2):497-509.

Owens, J. (2014) Insufficient Sleep in Adolescents and Young Adults: An Update on Causes and Consequences.  American Academy of Pediatrics

Carskadon, M. A. (2011). Sleep in adolescents: The perfect storm. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 58(3):637-647

Vandekerckhove M, Weiss R, Schotte C, Exadaktylos V, Haex B, Verbraecken J, Cluydts R. (2011) The role of presleep negative emotion in sleep physiology