Lack of sleep in teenagers can lead to obesity

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September 14, 2022 – Like many parents of teens, LaToya S. is concerned about her son’s sleeping habits. In the early weeks of the pandemic, when her then-13-year-old was left with no way to connect with friends, she ditched some of her typical screen-time rules. It wasn’t long before her son’s bedtime slowed down, he started playing video games with friends until the wee hours and the good nights sleep faded away. Two years later, LaToya is still working to get him back to normal sleeping patterns.

Your commitment has a good reason. The link between poor sleep habits and poor health is well known. For teens, this can mean lower grades, higher rates of mood disorders, higher risk of substance abuse, and more.

“When he went back to school after lockdown, we started to see the impact of his disrupted sleep patterns,” says LaToya. “Teachers noticed that he nodded off after the first few hours of class. He fell behind, especially in classes that required extra effort. We realized that we have to change something.”

As if academic performance wasn’t enough to worry about, a new study for parents like LaToya has added another concern: Too little sleep in teens is linked to obesity and being overweight.

The supporting data

The study, authored by Jesus Martinez Gomez, a researcher-in-training at the Cardiovascular Health and Imaging Laboratory of the Spanish National Center for Cardiovascular Research, examined the link between sleep duration and health in more than 1,200 adolescents, divided equally between boys and girls were distributed. The researchers began measuring sleep at age 12 and then repeated the exercise again at ages 14 and 16. Each time, subjects in the study wore activity trackers for 7 days.

In addition to sleep measurements, the researchers measured body mass index (BMI) throughout the study. They also calculated a number of things that can increase the chances of heart disease and other conditions, ranging from negative (healthier) to positive (unhealthier) values. The researchers also measured and tracked waist circumference, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 get between 8 and 10 hours of regular sleep each night for optimal health. But the Spanish study found that by age 12, only 34% of study participants were getting a full 8 hours of sleep a night. By the time subjects were 14 years old, that number had dropped to 23%, and by 16 to 19%. Including data for overweight and obesity, at age 12, 21% fell into this category; at 14, the figure rose to 24%; and by 16, when sleep was at its lowest, the number rose to 27%.

Laura Sterni, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Pediatric Sleep Center, is not surprised by these results. “We don’t make sure our teenagers get enough sleep,” she says. “There are a number of factors that contribute to this and the adverse effects are large.”

When it comes to the obesity link, lack of sleep as a cause isn’t quite there yet, but it’s likely.

“Right now it’s about correlation, not causation, but parents should still consider the connection,” says Bruce Bassi, MD, medical director and founder of TelepsychHealth, an online therapy provider. “Any effects that come with sleep deprivation are exactly the opposite of what you want. Sleep deprivation affects the toddler sides of our brains — we get moodier and seek comfort, and sometimes the food is.”

“We’re getting more data all the time,” Sterni says of the discovery that sleep deprivation leads to obesity. “The risk factors for obesity appear to be dose-dependent.”

In fact, the less sleep a teenager gets, the more likely they are to become overweight or obese, the Spanish study highlights.

“We know that insufficient sleep leads to changes in key hormone control and metabolic markers,” says Sterni. “It affects the hormones that make us feel full by lowering them and, conversely, increases our hunger.”

Lack of sleep also affects how a body metabolizes glucose, leads to insulin resistance, and makes eating poor carbs more appealing to the body, Sterni explains.

“Then there’s the fact that if you get up late you have more opportunities to eat, maybe you’re mindlessly snacking on bad food while sitting in front of screens,” she says. “You’re tired during the day, so you don’t exercise that much. Lifestyle factors are woven into the picture.”

Today’s teenagers are also notoriously busy, which doesn’t encourage steady, regular bedtime habits. Social activities, sports, and club and school commitments can shift bedtimes later and waketimes earlier. Add it all up, and lack of sleep can leave teens with lifelong health problems, many of them due to unhealthy weight.

How you can help your teenager

While the data can be sobering, there are important ways parents can help their teens develop better sleep habits.

“The good news is that there is some data to show that when you educate families and young people about the importance of sleep, they will listen and work to maintain healthy sleep habits,” says Sterni. “It’s just as important as brushing your teeth, and you should always work towards getting an appropriate amount.”

Bassi says one of the most logical places to start is to encourage earlier bedtimes.

“For most teens, the end of sleep is set because of school, so instead focus on when they go to bed,” he suggests. “Promote better sleep hygiene and reduce pre-bedtime stimulation.”

That means establishing good screen time habits, a big part of the approach Greg F. and his partner have taken. As parents of 15 and 17 year olds, they have set rules for their devices.

“They can only use their phones in the common areas of the house and have to turn them off at 8:45 a.m.,” Greg explains. “In the morning, they can’t use their phones until all their chores and breakfast are done. We believe it’s best if they sleep on both the frontend and backend before they have phones in hand.”

Exercising during the day can also increase the likelihood that a teenager will get a decent amount of sleep at night. Since both children are involved in sports, this is another point that Greg’s family is checking on.

“Parents can also demonstrate their own good habits,” suggests Bassi. “Positively reinforce your policies by turning your own screens down in the evenings.”

Greg follows this advice.

“We don’t have TVs in our bedrooms, we go to bed early and open a book before bed,” he says.

Nap is another area worth visiting. As many parents of teenagers know, this is an age group that likes to take a nap when they can.

“I’m not against naps,” says Sterni. But, he says, “limit naps to 45 minutes to an hour and try to prevent your teen from napping too close to bedtime.”

While there are many areas to work on with teens and sleep habits, Sterni recommends starting with one or two rather than tackling them all at once.

“You’re not going to do them all at once,” she says. “Just work toward the 8-hour average goal, however you need to approach it.”

LaToya’s work on improving her son’s sleep habits is far from over, but she’s seeing progress. The family have set down times on their router, set a bedtime of 10pm, and even gave their son an old-fashioned alarm clock to replace his phone’s alarm in his room. As habits improve, they may revisit some of the rules.

“We realized that teenagers, like younger children, need incentives for positive behavior,” she says. “Our persistence is paying off and we’re patient with his progress.”



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