Sleep is a beautiful thing. I have reason to know that more intimately than most people. I’ve struggled with fatigue, insomnia, and assorted sleep issues myself, and even went through an all-night, fully monitored sleep study looking for answers. I learned that, while specific health problems were the underlying cause of much of my fatigue, I was also allowing problems to persist—and making them much worse—by not prioritizing quality sleep.
Several years after this medical adventure, I watch my sleep like a hawk, and I’ve seen marked benefits from doing so. Maintaining good sleep hygiene can be tough, and I’m far from perfect in my habits, but the improvements in my life have absolutely been worth the work. I’ve found myself becoming something of a sleep evangelist, introducing others to the power and joy of better sleep habits.
Now it’s time for me to share what I have learned with you. I know that, as teenagers, you may feel that there’s just too much on your plate to prioritize sleep, but your sleep hygiene is an absolutely essential element of your health, well-being, and ability to put your full effort into the activities that matter to you. Sleep deprivation may seem normal in our society—something to accept and joke about—but it’s not healthy, and it’s preventing you from being your best self.
Read on for more information about the importance of sleep, as well as my favorite tips for improving and maintaining your sleep health.
The Benefits of Sleep (and the Risks of Not Sleeping)
You’ve probably already been told many times that as an adolescent, in the midst of physical and mental growth, you need to get more sleep. You might be tempted to dismiss that advice as out of touch or apocryphal. After all, nobody seems to get that much sleep, regardless of their age, so it must be okay.
However, this isn’t just the opinion of a few parents or pediatricians; it’s backed up by extensive research and scientific data. The medical consensus is that teenagers need 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night to stay healthy. The reality is that few of them are getting anywhere close to enough sleep most of the time; one study found that only 15% of teenagers reported sleeping 8.5 hours or longer on school nights.
You might assume that you can “catch up on sleep” over the weekend, but that’s just not how it works, especially in the long run. Maintaining an irregular sleep schedule only damages your overall sleep health, upsetting your body’s clock and making it even harder to get up on time come Monday morning. The timing of your sleep is just as important as the amount.
Not getting enough sleep, or having erratic sleep habits, can cause a laundry list of problems in addition to the obvious daytime sleepiness and/or insomnia. There are even indications that people who are chronically sleep-deprived have shorter average lifetimes.
Mentally, you may experience impaired decision-making and impulse control, increased irritability, and poor concentration. Your mood may suffer, leaving you at higher risk for depression. Physically, sleep problems can make it harder to maintain a healthy weight, and increase your risk of high blood pressure and Type II diabetes.
In short, not getting enough sleep makes absolutely everything worse. You may feel like sleeping less provides you with more hours in the day, but given the negative side effects, are the hours really worth it? I don’t think so, and neither do the people whose life’s work is to improve and safeguard the health of teenagers.
But I Don’t Have Time to Sleep!
You’ll likely protest that it’s simply impossible for a high-achieving high school student to get that much sleep consistently. It’s true that between homework, extracurriculars, test prep, a part-time job, and some attempt at a social life, you likely don’t have many free hours left in the day. It’s hard to get to bed early when you’re thinking of all the things you could be working on.
As a teenager, there are also factors influencing your life that you can’t control. For instance, high school starts early in the morning, likely earlier than you would prefer. Some school districts have instituted later start times to better accommodate teen sleep cycles, but this isn’t the norm, and you’re at the mercy of your school’s administrators.
I know this feeling well—not so long ago, I was juggling all those obligations myself. I can also assure you that adult life is not lacking in similarly pressing responsibilities and anxieties that do their best to keep me up late. It can get very frustrating to feel like there’s not enough time in the day.
However, as pediatric sleep specialist Dr. Judith A. Owens put it, “Sleep is not optional. It’s a health imperative, like eating, breathing, and physical activity.” Sleep is a need, and when that need isn’t met, there are consequences. You don’t have time to not get a good night’s sleep.
Sure, you might fret about the hours you could have devoted to school or fun. Basically anything seems more exciting than sleeping, and that’s understandable—sleep is pretty boring, and its benefits aren’t very direct or tangible, especially in the short term.
What you give up in quantity, though, you’ll get back in quality. Getting enough sleep will leave you more alert, focused, and capable of doing your best. Research has even indicated that allowing students to get more sleep (in that study, by delaying high school start times) may result in higher GPAs and standardized test scores.
If you’re short on sleep, you’re not functioning at 100% of your capacity in your waking hours, even though there are more of them. If it takes twice as long to do your homework because you can’t keep your eyes open, have you really gained anything?
Outside the classroom, you’ll also benefit from getting enough sleep. If you’re a new driver, for instance, you should know that sleep deprivation is a significant cause of car accidents, and may even be as debilitating as driving drunk. You might also find that you’re a more pleasant, less cranky person after a good night’s rest, which can help your relationships with family and friends. Whatever you do, it’ll go better if you’re well-rested.
Resisting the Siren Song of Smartphones
Once you’ve established that your sleep habits are holding you back and gained the motivation to change, it’s time to talk practical solutions. There are a number of different changes that I and others have found helpful when fighting sleep issues, but I’ll start with one that’s particularly common among teenagers today: reducing the ways in which your smartphone use interferes with your sleep.
You may have heard that looking at electronic screens before going to bed is bad for you, and that’s true—the light itself can disrupt your brain’s production of melatonin, the sleep-signaling hormone, and the added stimulation can distract you from getting to sleep. Unfortunately, this doesn’t just apply to your computer or TV; as much as you might not want to admit it, it also applies to your smartphone.
I’m old enough to have attended high school before cellphones became ubiquitous, so I experienced the transition from land lines to tiny pocket computers in real time. In the process, I’ve personally experienced how much this delightful new technology can disrupt my sleep schedule by providing a tempting, always-on stream of content and interaction. Sometimes, it truly feels impossible to put down.
You don’t have to give up your phone, but there are things you can do to reduce its impact on your sleep schedule. For instance, every phone allows you to customize when and how much it demands your attention. I have my phone set to automatically go into Do Not Disturb mode every night between 10 PM and 8 AM, silencing all notifications, and that’s worked really well for me.
Your sleep is deeply important to your health, and it’s totally reasonable to not respond to calls, texts, or other notifications in the middle of the night. These can cause a lot of stress as well as disrupting your sleep. You don’t have to be connected and responsive all the time—in fact, you need time to relax, disconnect, and not worry about who’s trying to get in touch.
Truly unforeseen emergencies come up very rarely, and most problems that might come up in the middle of the night can safely wait until morning. In fact, you might be better able to deal with them when you’re more solidly awake and better rested. People will understand that your health comes first, and if they don’t, it’s perfectly reasonable to insist on it anyway.
Personally, I leave my phone in the kitchen at night so that I’m even less tempted to check Facebook at 3 AM. That’s a drastic tactic, and it means sacrificing some privacy, but it really does work for me. There’s no shame in avoiding temptation by physically separating yourself from its source.
Smartphones aren’t inherently evil. In fact, they aren’t inherently anything—they’re just tools that can be used in a variety of ways. Some of those uses are incredibly helpful and a lot of fun. Some of them, however, can turn into bad habits, and these habits are a great place to start when you’re looking for ways to improve your sleep hygiene.
Your Sleep Hygiene Toolbox
Of course, your phone isn’t the only thing keeping you from an ideal and blissful sleep schedule. There are plenty of other distractions to avoid and healthy practices to take up that can help you manage your sleep. Below, I’ve compiled some of the tips that have been most important to me in improving my own sleep.
Some of these tips may sound difficult or downright impossible to fit into your daily life. That’s okay! You don’t have to be perfect to reap the benefits of better sleep hygiene. You also don’t have to do all of these things every day—an occasional late night finishing a paper or sleepy weekend getting some extra rest won’t kill you.
Every little bit helps, but the more high-quality sleep you get on a regular basis, the better. Do what you can, and remember that taking care of yourself is one of the most important things you can do. You deserve it.
- Get your exercise. Physical activity can be great for your sleep management. I know that I always sleep better and wake up feeling better-rested after I thoroughly wear myself out on a long hike.
- Give yourself time to wind down. Aside from the perils of brightly lit screens, bedtime isn’t the right time to watch a horror movie, start planning a new project, or tackle a task that’s making you anxious. Stick to low-key, relaxing activities.
- Create an environment that encourages good sleep. Don’t do homework, watch TV, or just hang out in bed; reserve it for sleeping only. Select comfy bedding, put up blackout curtains, keep the room at the right temperature, or invest in some earplugs—whatever helps you.
- Enlist the help of friends and family whenever possible. It’s harder to maintain good sleep practices if people in your life don’t respect them. I know some friends might get annoyed if you fail to immediately respond to a late-night text, but you shouldn’t feel bad at all about setting boundaries and taking care of yourself.
- Don’t rely on substances to manage sleep and wakefulness. Your morning coffee is probably okay, but too much caffeine, especially late in the day, can seriously disrupt your sleep. On the other end of the spectrum, sleep aids can leave you groggy or lose effectiveness over time, and some come with other health risks.
- If you’re experiencing new or extreme fatigue, insomnia, or sleep disruptions, or other symptoms in addition to fatigue or insomnia, check in with your doctor. Many physical and mental health conditions can affect your sleep cycle, from an underactive thyroid to anemia to depression. Some of them aren’t what you’d expect—I eventually found out that much of my own fatigue was caused by gluten intolerance, of all things. If a medical condition is causing you problems, your doctor can help you explore solutions that are more targeted to your needs.
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