The Teenage Brain: How Hormones affect Productivity and Sleep

The teenage years — a period of time when your child starts to experiment more, push more boundaries and make ‘weird’ decisions, which ultimately makes us question if we have completely messed up this parenting thing…

Both, Dr Thom and I are currently in the toddler phase which has its own challenges (what phase of parenting doesn’t) but we often hear from families in our practice about their frustrations when it comes to dealing with the changes and challenges their teens are experiencing. 

I am by no means an expert, but when I become curious about something then I try to talk to more people, read more and see where that takes me. A common problem I hear from parents is that they are constantly battling the screens in their house and lack of sleep, so this month we are going to cover these specific issues and what you can do to help your teen through this challenging time. 

Teenagers would not be teenagers without hormones, so lets start with PUBERTY. 

Puberty is initiated by a gene coding and construction of a single protein named kisspeptin that is produced in the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that regulates metabolism). When this protein (kisspeptin) connects with, or “kisses” receptors on another gene, it triggers the pituitary gland to release its storage of hormones. This causes surges of testosterone, estrogen and progesterone, which turn on the sex organs (testes or ovaries). 

These hormones (testosterone, estrogen and progesterone) are present at birth but this is the first time their concentrations change dramatically.

We like to blame teenage behaviours on surging hormones, but young adults have the same hormonal levels so why do they react differently?

Scientists at the State University of New York found that the hormone tetrahydropregnanolone (THP), usually released in response to stress to help modulate anxiety, had a reverse effect in adolescents which caused it to raise anxiety instead of reducing it. Also, adolescence is a huge time where new connections in the brain are being built and many chemicals, especially neurotransmitters are in flux. A.K.A. their brain is changing rapidly and their frontal lobes responsible for their personality and judgement is being developed. 

So as you can imagine, this can affect their ability to learn, be productive and their sleep. While all this is happening the demands of studying and homework is increasing and many teens try to start multitasking. 

MULTITASKING & THE TEENAGE BRAIN

When I was in high school, MP3 players were just coming out. Many people had them and many friends never took their headphones off. My parents didn’t allow me to have one when I was at school, but I remember people saying it helped them to study and they would do their homework with headphones on. But this concept of multitasking is a big problem because multitasking just doesn’t work.

Now a days, most students are multitasking while they try to learn: T.V. on, music in the background, texting or on social media and most teens would swear they can handle it without any problem. They may even mention how these things help them to focus on their work. 

A study, in 2006, had teens memorize lists of words and then recall these words at a later time. One group had a mental distractor (similar to pressing a button on a computer) while memorizing and the others did not. The findings showed that the student’s ability to memorize and recall was decreased from 9% up to 59% while they were doing the concurrent distracting task. So distracted learning (multitasking) was NOT GOOD! 

Getting your teen to focus on one thing (phones/music/TV off and away) will greatly benefit how much they can remember and recall. They will also be able to do it much more efficiently too which is important when we consider they probably need to sleep more. 

SLEEP

As everyone knows, most teenagers are exhausted. Teenagers struggle to get out of bed in the morning and it seems they can sleep the whole day away! 

Sleep is one of the most important aspects of daily life and one of the least understood. Sleep is the time when memory and learning are thought to be consolidated therefore it is a requirement. It is also important for stress levels, proper metabolism and eating habits. 

Most teens are more likely to be night owls – they stay up late and wake up late but teenagers require up to 10 hours of sleep per night. The problem is that life doesn’t always allow for that. School and work start early which means these teens are not getting enough sleep and losing on average 3 hours of sleep daily which can lead to chronic sleep deprivation syndrome. 

Interestingly enough, researchers are showing that some of the same symptoms that show up in ADHD are seen in chronic sleep deprivation…. If this is happening in your child, is it possible they are just not sleeping enough?

Other symptoms of poor sleep include: skin conditions that worsen with stress, eating too much, injuries during sports, rise in blood pressure, susceptibility to serious illness, aggressive behaviour, impatience, impulsive or inappropriate behaviour, low self-esteem, mood swings, inhibition of creativity, impairment of the ability to learn, forgetfulness, slow problem-solving skills…Yikes!

Melatonin, a critical hormone to inducing sleep, is released two hours later into the night in a teenagers brain than in adults. It also stays in their system for longer in the morning, making them want to sleep in. Teenagers circadian rhythms (biological clocks) shift forward meaning they are more alert and just getting revved up from 7-8 pm when most adults are falling asleep on the couch. 

So to wake up by 7 a.m., teenagers need to be in bed between 9-10 p.m. at night to get enough sleep. How often does that happen especially in the summer when the sun is up later? Couple this with screen time and blue light exposure and the likelihood of getting to bed between 9 and 10 p.m. goes out the window. 

The best thing you can do for your kids is to make sure the screens are out of their rooms at least an hour before sleep time to help normalize their melatonin levels. Make their bed a place to sleep instead of a place to hangout. And let them sleep in if they need to. Summer is a great time to work on that sleep deprivation built up during the school year. 

To learn more check out the book, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents. I would highly recommend this book as it has a ton of useful information to help with teens and was the inspiration for this months blog. 

Dr. Sarah