- Mary Rogelstad
- May 3, 2022
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With some teens it almost seems like a badge of honor to not get enough sleep. They compare notes about how late they stayed up – often on their phones. Then on the weekend they may sleep in through the morning to try to make up for it.
Not surprising these aren’t great sleep habits, and this has a major impact on many factors, ranging from teen mental health to academic performance.
Sleep specialist Dr. Yishan Xu met virtually with Rustic Pathways staff to talk about teen sleep and stress. Her guidance and expertise will be utilized as we promote teen health among our student travelers.
Dr. Xu is the founder of Mind & Body Garden Psychology and is a behavioral sleep medicine specialist who trained in the Stanford Sleep Medicine Department. She’s also a licensed psychologist. She says there are a number of misconceptions about sleep.
Generally there are three major sleep myths:
1.) All people need 7-8 hours of sleep.
This actually only applies to about half of the population. Genetically a number of people need more or less than 8 hours of sleep. Short sleepers may do well with only 5-6 hours of sleep and will get insomnia if they try to sleep more. Others need 9 to 10 hours of sleep.
Children and teens do need more sleep than adults. Teenagers often need 8-10 hours of sleep to be healthy.
2.) You can judge your sleep quality based on how you feel first thing in the morning.
The waking up process is slow for most people rather than being like a light switch. Experts call this sleep inertia, which is the transitional period between being asleep and awake.
For some people this period may last a half hour. For others, it may be a couple of hours. Night owls tend to need longer transition periods in the morning.
Social and physical activity and exposure to light can help with the process. Therefore, teens who have trouble getting up may benefit from having a light box or sun exposure.
Morning activities that can help vary by person. Some teens may like a quieter routine in the morning, but others may wake up better if there is upbeat music or physical activity.
If the wake up system is activated early in the day, a teen is more likely to sleep better at night. Therefore, finding ways to get going in the morning can help.
3.) Waking up at night is bad.
Waking up at night is actually normal. An adult generally wakes up 12 to 20 times a night but just may not remember it. Older adults can wake up dozens of times a night.
We spend half of the night in deep sleep and half in REM sleep and wake up between stages. If a person doesn’t remember these periods or easily falls asleep again, this is not a problem.
How To Develop Healthy Sleep Habits
Unfortunately there are many teens and adults that have trouble getting the appropriate amount of restful sleep. There are more than 90 types of sleep disorders. A number of them need the assistance of a sleep specialist, but there are many things that can be done to help the average person.
If you don’t get enough sleep one night, you don’t want to be a couch potato the next day. Active days are more likely to lead to restful nights. Still intense exercise should be avoided before bedtime, though gentle stretching is fine.
Food and drinks also should be avoided about three to four hours before bedtime. For caffeine consumption, it depends on the person. The half life of caffeine is 4 to 7 hours so it can take up to 14 hours to get completely out of the system. Therefore, someone who is caffeine sensitive should not have it in the afternoon or later.
What time you go to bed will depend on your circadian rhythms. That is partially decided by genes. Night owls do indeed have a different sleep window than morning birds.
When tired, it’s important to associate your bed with sleep. Therefore, it’s not great for teens to do homework or sit on their phone in their beds. When they are in bed, they should be sleeping, and if they have trouble sleeping, then they should get up. The goal is to train the brain to associate the bed with sleeping.
To help with the process of going to sleep, people naturally have a wind down time, which can vary in length depending on the person. Just like there is a transition period in the morning, there is one at night.
During this time, screens should be turned off and a soothing routine can be followed to indicate bedtime. This can take a half hour or an hour to promote relaxation.
If teens have problems with anxiety, they can use a worry box or structured worry time. This involves setting aside a worry time during the day when you can write down worries. If these thoughts pop up at bedtime, then there can be a mental effort to remind yourself that you’ll focus on that issue during your worry time the next day. This is a mind training exercise that hopefully limits the amount of worries each day and allows better sleep.
How To Handle Jet Lag
The healthy habits created at home can seemingly go out the window when we travel to a different time zone. Timing your eating habits can help with this problem.
This may involve a brief fasting period. The goal is to eat breakfast at the appropriate time at your destination. Feeding and fasting time impact the alignment of our circadian rhythm, so it could be a helpful tool to help cope with jet lag.
Breakfast normally comes after a night of not eating. Therefore, you may want to fast about 16 hours before eating breakfast at your destination. Therefore if you arrive at 5pm local time, you could eat like it is dinner time, even if it’s not dinner time at home. But you would not want to eat if you arrived late at night.
Getting your eating schedule on track will help with sleep habits. Of course all of this is more difficult for teens who are under stress. In our next blog, we’ll share advice on helping teens with their mental health before and during travel.
Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.