Some teens may develop sleeping disorders during puberty and begin to abuse alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate.
New research from the Netherlands focused on sleep behaviors and alcohol use in teens, showing that many boys and girls develop sleep problems at an early age.
Sleep disorders are common in both teenagers and adults. There are many medical conditions that can cause problems with falling asleep, staying asleep throughout the night, and waking up too early. Psychological disorders, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, obsessive compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia are also associated with sleeping problems.
In the absence of any medical or mental health issues, difficulty with sleep for more than one week is diagnosed as primary insomnia. More than 64 million Americans a year suffer from insomnia. Adults on average require seven to eight hours of sleep, whereas teenagers appear to require approximately an additional hour.
Up to 14 percent of 11- to 17-year-olds do not get sufficient sleep. Lack of sleep can contribute to poor performance at school, psychological issues, behavioral difficulties, and relationship problems with family and friends. Older teenagers often appear to have a sleep-wake cycle set at a later time than younger children and adults; they naturally fall into a pattern of staying up later and sleeping in later. Early school start times can thus be one cause of insufficient sleep.
Adults with insomnia often self-medicate with alcohol to try to get relief from sleep problems. Not only does this sometimes lead to alcohol abuse and increase the risk of relapse for recovering alcoholics, but alcohol itself actually disrupts sleep.
Alcohol is known to interfere with the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, thus causing the sleeper to feel even less rested after awakening.
Sara Pieters, a neuropsychology doctoral student from the University of Nijmegan, surveyed 236 girls and 195 boys between the ages of 11 and 14 to determine if there was an association between sleep problems and alcohol use.
Pieters and her team of researchers found that there was an association between earlier use of alcohol among the teens who tended to stay up later and who had problems such as difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and who also perceived themselves as more tired.
In addition, the teens who matured earlier tended to stay up later, have greater sleep problems, and also have more of a tendency to use alcohol.
Even after consideration of the young adolescents’ educational level, gender, and psychological health the association was still present.
Whether the tendency to use alcohol is caused by sleeping problems, or sleep problems precipitate the alcohol use cannot be determined from these results.
The findings of this study are important in showing that there is a relationship between sleep problems and alcohol use even in very young teenagers, and this relationship is associated with puberty. Parents and clinicians can screen for sleep disorders when considering alcohol abuse, and parents can consider the potential effects of sleep problems on the possible development of substance abuse.