LAWRENCE – Sleep deprivation is rampant among teenagers, which puts them at serious risk for depression and a host of other problems, according to a recent study involving almost 300 high school seniors in Mercer County.

The study found that during the school year, high school students got an average of 6.1 hours of sleep on weeknights and that levels of depression were moderate to high within this group, according to Dr. Mahmood Siddique, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and director of Sleep & Wellness Associates here and in Princeton.

The study surveyed 262 seniors at Princeton High School, using a validated scale to track their levels of sleepiness in several categories. At an average of 6.1 hours of sleep per weeknight, these students were well beneath the number of hours generally recommended for this age group.

The sleep deficit, said Siddique, can result in depression and also aggravate disorders and illnesses for which teens are particularly at risk such as ADD, overeating or self-medication with drugs and alcohol.

Some 30 percent of the respondents indicated strong depression symptoms in connection with their sleep patterns and 32 percent indicated some level of depression, according to the study.

The results, presented at the Association of Professional Sleep Societies annual meeting in Texas last month, showed that sleep deprivation and depression were abnormally high among those tested. The study, run by the Sleep & Wellness Associates, was one of 1,000 abstracts presented at the meeting chosen for special commendation.

“I would say that sleep is actually more important than food and water for this age group,” said Siddique during an interview at the Sleep & Wellness center on Quakerbridge Road.

“Adolescents really need nine hours of sleep a night. It’s mandated by their metabolic demands. And their brains are still developing.

“Parents may not be aware that these kids are sleep-deprived, so everyone is getting a diminution of return. We’d like to get the message out “” let them sleep. They’ll be more focused and actually perform better on tests, and they’ll be happier kids.”

Siddique described a cycle of agitation that starts with a lack of sleep among teens. At the least it can result in irritability, mood swings and symptoms of depression.

Tired teens also tend to reach for carbohydrates, which the body craves under duress, thus overindulging in the kinds of foods that lead to pre-diabetes and obesity.

Sluggishness in school that is merely the result of exhaustion can lead to misdiagnoses of ADD or ADHD, or even bi-polar disorder, said Siddique.

And while teenagers are just as prone to sleep apnea “” the momentary blocking of airways during sleep “” as the adult population this, too, is often overlooked as a pathology among agitated teenagers.

“You have the availability of electronics in their rooms “” IPods, bright computer screens, texting and cell phones. Then there’s the pressure of college preparation,” said Siddique. “The teenage brain wants them to sleep but societal pressure is dictating that they stay awake.

“So they are reaching for the Starbucks or Red Bulls of the world and then eating bagels and pizza because they’re sleep-deprived.

“It’s also the way our society looks at sleep,” he added. “You hear people say, “Oh, I pulled an all-nighter,’ or “I can get by on five hours of sleep.’ It’s almost as if needing sleep is a sign of weakness.”

One of the interesting facts about teen physiology is that their circadian rhythms “” roughly, the 24-hour period of biological patterns in any human being “” shift in adolescents so that their sleep patterns almost demand that they stay up later and sleep later, said Siddique.

So while generations of parents are frustrated with what they see as laziness or slothfulness, a biological imperative to sleep later and longer is more often a factor among adolescents, said Siddique.

“Physiologically, they need to fall asleep later and then they want to get up later. So it’s as if we’re expecting them to start their day in the last third of their sleep cycle, which is equivalent to asking you to get up and drive to work at 3 a.m. It’s taking half an hour to get them up for school because they’re in a deep cycle of sleep, and this is a constant state of friction in the house,” said Siddique. Siddique completed his medical residency in Internal Medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, with a fellowship in Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at Case Western Reserve University.

Rest a bit easier with these tips

The following are suggestions for a more restful, effective night’s sleep as published by the Sleep & Wellness Medical Associates,

  • The average adult needs eight hours of sleep per night; the average teenager, nine hours.
  • Sleepiness during the daytime is a good predictor of sleep deprivation.
  • Maintaining a regular bedtime and wake-up time is crucial to stable sleep patterns.
  • Even on weekends, sleep and rise at the same times.
  • Exercise regularly, especially in the morning; however, avoid heavy exercise four hours before bedtime.
  • Limit daytime naps to no more than 20 minutes.
  • Do not eat a full meal too close to bedtime; a balanced diet of proteins and complex carbohydrates is ideal for overall sleep and health.
  • Minimize light in your bedroom. Turn off computers and other objects that emit a nighttime glow.
  • Maintain an adequate temperature of between 60 and 65 degrees in your nighttime bedroom.
  • A regular intake of vitamins and minerals such as magnesium and calcium may help you to sleep better.

Wendy Plump / Special to The Times