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Your Healthy Family: Chances are your teen suffers from "Social Jet Lag"

Posted at 11:28 AM, Oct 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-04 17:45:49-04

COLORADO SPRINGS — As we head into the weekend, it's a perfect time to talk about the sleep health of your teenagers. While your teen may not be a world traveler, think about it this way - is there anything adults dread more when it comes to travel than the brutality of jet lag?

Dr. Rick Mohon, MD specializing in pulmonary sleep medicine with Children’s Hospital Colorado says, “We all know when we get on a jet and fly from San Francisco to New York, or from New York to Europe that time zone change takes several days for your body to adjust to.”

Dr. Mohon says that's exactly what a typical teenager goes through every week during the school year. “Your teenager may go to bed at 10 or 11 at night, but on the weekends there up to 12, 1 or 2 in the morning. Then they sleep in the next day, which is a Saturday or Sunday till 11 in the morning or 12 noon. We call that in sleep medicine a social jet lag, it's like going across 2 or 3 different time zones. Their body has to constantly re-adjust to the shifts that they are creating in themselves by going to sleep at a later hour and getting up at a later hour and then trying to reverse that on those school days, it's a real problem.”

Dr. Mohon says all the known usual suspects play a role in a teen’s social jet lag beginning with how a normal teens’ body clock is programmed. “Teenagers are already at a disadvantage because when we talk about circadian rhythms - the timing of when we want to go to sleep - teenagers tend to have a circadian rhythm that wants to let them be sleepy at a later hour. They go into their bedrooms and you don't quite know what's happening up there but you check in on them at 10, when they're supposed to be sleeping, and they may have about their electronics or phone out and they're texting people or their talking on the phone. Then they have trouble getting to sleep at night and they wonder why they are not able to get to sleep at night. Much of that has to do with the light coming out of the electronic device. It's blue light, the part of light wavelength spectrum that suppresses melatonin, which is what our brain makes to help us go to sleep. So, it’s like a double whammy. It keeps them awake longer and makes it harder to go to sleep. Then, if they if they don't go to sleep until 11, 12 or 1 in the morning and they have to get up and go to school at 6 and 6:30 in the morning then they really got a decreased amount of total sleep time that night, like a triple whammy. Then, there's a quadruple whammy I guess - they go to school feeling sleepy and some of them will take naps at school. Sometimes they lay their head down on the desk when nobody is watching. They'll go home in the afternoon and take a nap. If they take these little naps, it suppresses the desire to want to go to sleep in the evening and so the problem perpetuates itself.”

As impossible as the solution for teens to this social jet lag problems sounds, Dr. Mohon says it boils down to a basic couple of things. “You need to get the electronics away from them, and they need to have them go to a nice comfortable environment to go to sleep. Then try to get up at the same time every day.”

That includes the weekends and Dr. Mohon says getting your teen to understand the value of waking up at a consistent time, even on the weekends, will take some work. “In sleep medicine we understand we have to get buy-in from patients and sometimes that is difficult. We do motivational interviewing where we talk with a patient specifically about, ‘What are your barriers to going to bed at night? What are your barriers to getting up in the morning, and how can we accomplish what we need to, so you get a good night of sleep so you can feel comfortable in the daytime?’ When you do those things your concentration is good, you can think about learning and interacting with all your friends at school, if you get a good night of sleep. When we talk to teens, we know in general teenagers maybe only get 6 or 7 hours of sleep a night, and you need 8. How can we help you get that 7 or 8 hours of sleep so that you can really be functional in the daytime? When we have those conversations with the kids, they start to understand it, they don’t like it, but they understand that the screen light suppresses their ability to go to sleep. Sometimes it takes a visit or two in order to get the full buy-in, so I am really a big proponent of follow up on these kids. You can't teach everything in one visit, necessarily.”

If you have questions or want to know about healthy sleep habits for your teens, follow up with your pediatrician, or the experts at Children's Hospital Colorado, in Colorado Springs or Aurora.