Sleep has a wide and lasting impact on many aspects of life, from behavior, emotional regulation and mood, to diet and awareness of one’s own safety. Dr. Judith Owens explains the science behind the importance of sleep, especially among adolescents.

For the first part of this series on sleep, check out this article: Everything You Should Know About Sleep for Adolescents. Part One: Reasons Why Your Teens Are Tired.


Sleep and Behavioral Self-Regulation

Experimental sleep restriction has selective effects on the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and executive functions. Restricted sleep affects the following:

  • Flexibility
  • Planning
  • Problem-solving
  • Decision-making
  • Divergent thinking
  • Cognitive set shifting
  • Judgment, motivation
  • Monitoring, modifying and inhibiting behavior
  • Modulation of emotions
  • Rapid development in adolescence

Sleep and Emotional Regulation

Sleep has an impact on the response to positive and negative stimuli. A lack of sleep will lead to an increased response of the “emotional brain” (limbic system/striatum), as well as a heightened emotional response with less regulatory control.

Sleep and Mood

Adolescents who are sleep-deprived are much more likely to report depression, and more likely to have suicidal thoughts. According to the Youth Risk Survey (2010-12), 40% of teens getting less than 6 hours of sleep report depression symptoms, such as sadness and hopelessness.

Sleep and Risk-Taking Behaviors

Selective areas of the brain (striatum) are important for reward-related function. These areas undergo structural/functional changes in adolescence. Studies suggest that insufficient sleep is linked to changes in reward-related decision making. Individuals perceive less negative consequences as a result of their behavior, and thus take greater risks. Furthermore, sleep duration is a significant negative predictor for alcohol-related problems such as binge-drinking and driving while drunk. According to some studies, adolescents who get the least amount of sleep on school nights report the highest prevalence of alcohol use.


Multiple studies suggest shorter sleep amounts has a direct correlation with an increased risk of obesity. Sleep duration and timing affect:

  • Hunger
  • Food intake: increased amount, more calories, more fat
  • Eating patterns (skipping breakfast, increased night eating)
  • Physical activity
  • Cardiovascular function
  • Insulin metabolism and increased diabetes risk


Sleep and Safety: Accidental Injuries

Driving while tired is widely known to be incredibly dangerous. A study in the US found that drivers between 16 to 25 years of age are involved in more than 50% of the 100,000 police-reported fatigue-related traffic crashes each year. To demonstrate just how dangerous sleep loss is, impairments from sleep loss are equal to or greater than those due to alcohol intoxication (i.e. 3 to 4 beers).

In addition, sleep loss is associated with:

  • an increased risk of pedestrian injuries in children
  • an increased risk in sports-related injuries in high school students
  • almost three times the risk of work-related injury requiring medical care among adolescents

So what can students do to improve their sleep and how can parents help them? Find out in the third part of this series on sleep: Everything You Should Know About Sleep for Adolescents. Part Three: A Guide to Better Sleep for Both Students and Parents.