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Powering Up Your Teen's Brain

Published on: March 01, 2008

Weekday mornings typically find my 16-year-old rolling out of bed at 5:45 a.m. Sleepy teenWith a quick shower, and taking the time to straighten her hair, she rarely eats a sit-down breakfast and usually grabs something to go before she’s rushing out the door to make sure she’s in her homeroom seat when the bell rings.

As a parent witnessing this early-morning routine, I’ve had the feeling it’s not healthy for her body or good for her grades to start the school day tired and hungry. Now, adolescent sleep researchers and nutritionists are backing up what I’ve long suspected: Getting enough sleep and good nutrition play a much bigger role in a teen’s school success than previously thought.

The sleep problem

“Almost all teenagers in this country are sleep-deprived,” says Maida Chen, M.D., associate director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center and a sleep researcher at the University of Washington. Most modern teens get between six and seven hours of sleep on school nights, but their bodies really require closer to nine or 10. Research finds that during the teen years, the body’s circadian rhythm (or internal body clock) is different from that of younger children and adults. It tells teens to fall asleep later at night and wake up later in the morning. “A younger child is happy to go to bed at 8 on school nights, but starting about age 14, teens just can’t fall asleep until closer to 10 or 11,” Chen says. She describes this as the “circadian delayed sleep phase” and says it’s a hormonally driven stage of life lasting into the early twenties.

The problem arises when this natural phase clashes with school start times. “High schools start so early, and it places kids in a suboptimal position for their performance in school,” Chen says. “Most teens are still partially asleep for the first two hours of school, since their bodies naturally wake up around 9 in the morning.”

A 2006 study in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews found the relationship between sleep, learning and memory processes in the brain to be dramatically affected by sleep deprivation. A lack of sleep was shown to significantly impair students’ learning abilities, memory capacity and school performance levels.

Locally, not many high schools are working to synchronize school clocks with body clocks, since most start between 7 and 8 a.m. Only one school in the Seattle School District, Nathan Hale High School, has moved its start time to 8:30 a.m. based on adolescent sleep research and feedback from parents who said it would be better for students. Dean of students, Mike Linett, describes the change as a “rewarding experience” for both teachers and students at the school. He says students are now more awake and teachers no longer have to adjust their curricula for the first few hours of school. “We have since increased attendance, increased achievement and created a better learning environment,” Linett says.

The nutrition connection

Starting the school day tired is as much of a problem as teens getting to school without breakfast. Alicia Dixon-Doctor, R.D., a nutritionist at the adolescent clinic at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center, sees a lot of teens who routinely skip breakfast, have very little lunch, then are so famished when they get home from school that it’s hard for them to concentrate on homework.

Skipping meals is not a good idea for students, experts say. It lowers glucose levels in the bloodstream, and because glucose is the fuel that is responsible for providing brain power, a significant lack of it can have an impact on learning. A 2005 study at the Department of Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that children who frequently suffer from bouts of extremely low blood glucose have problems with spatial memory.

Dixon-Doctor says skipping meals can also lead to overeating at night to compensate for a lack of food during the day. This can cause imbalances in a teen’s metabolism that can lead to the body breaking down muscle for energy or gaining fat. The best way to regulate metabolism and fuel the brain is by eating three consistent meals with snacks throughout the day. Parents can promote this by providing a variety of foods that expose teens to different nutrients, always having protein-rich snacks on hand and eating three healthy meals a day ourselves to set a good example.

Katie Amodei is a Lynnwood-based freelance reporter, mother and stepmother who often writes about health issues.


Dr. Chen's prescription for good 'sleep hygiene'

Some good sleep habits that will help your teen get more ZZZ's:

• Make sure your teen has a comfortable bed.

• Keep the bedroom temperature warm, not too hot or too cool.

• Try to get your teen to have a set bedtime and wake time. This consistency will help their body clock.

• Keep the room absolutely dark. Purchase blackout shades if street light comes into your teen's room.

• Discourage aerobic exercise right before bedtime - it can be too stimulating. Yoga, stretching or relaxation techniques are a better choice.

• Ask your teen to not eat a large meal or drink caffeine right before going to bed.

• Try not to allow pets to sleep with your teen. They can be disruptive bed partners.

• Discourage TV or computers before bedtime. The bright screen is a brain stimulus.

• Encourage your teen to go to sleep without music on. If that's impossible for him, an alternative is to have music without lyrics, since words keep the brain tuned in.

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