In my previous post, I (Joseph A. Buckhalt Ph.D.) discussed the importance of sleep regularity and consistency in wake-up and bedtimes from night to night. Shortly after I published it, I learned about a fresh study that likewise illustrates the negative effects of inconsistent sleep.
In contrast to most studies on adolescent sleep and emotion regulation, Amanda Baker and colleagues at UCLA used fMRI scans to examine how irregular sleep affects important physiological processes.
For two weeks, adolescents wore actigraphs while they slept, and each evening before bed, they reported on the stressors they were currently dealing with as a result of either demands placed on them or interpersonal conflict. They evaluated their level of sleep-related rest each morning. fMRI scans were done two weeks later.
Numerous studies on adults and teenagers have demonstrated that emotional dysregulation is frequently caused by insufficient sleep. Arousal and stress cause the limbic regions of the brain to become very active, and during sleep, there is bidirectional connection between these regions and the cortex.
While it is ethically unacceptable to undertake sleep deprivation experiments on children and adolescents, this connection is reduced and the cortical areas are less able to control the limbic arousal in multiple studies with adults whose sleep has been purposefully reduced.
It is anticipated that adolescents would have the same consequences. There is one component of sleep patterns that can be researched naturally, despite the fact that experimental deprivation studies cannot be conducted.
Teenagers frequently don’t get enough sleep throughout the week while getting more on the weekends. They frequently stay up longer on certain school nights than others, which is another reason why the number of hours they sleep varies.
Despite receiving far less research than sleep time, studies on adults have found some negative impacts of consistency from night to night. The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of adolescent sleep irregularity on the connection between two brain regions.
The results: Teenagers who reported more stressors had nights that varied more from one to the next, with just one more demanding situation resulting in 10 minutes less sleep and increased fluctuation.
Similar to adult sleep deprivation research, the scans showed that adolescents with more varied sleep patterns had limbic areas that were more engaged and displayed less connection with the cortical regions than their peers.
These findings support the emerging understanding among academics that variety is just as important for maintaining adequate restorative sleep as duration. The majority of public health policy recommendations have been centered on determining the ideal amount of time for children and adolescents to sleep for performance and wellbeing.
Those suggestions should be expanded to include informing parents and teenagers that getting enough “better” sleep also requires that they go to bed and wake up at around the same time each day, especially on weekends.