Advice for Sleepy Students
Each fall, Grace
Pien, MD, in the University of Pennsylvania
Division of Sleep Medicine sees teenagers being
brought into her office by parents. The teens
complain about difficulty falling asleep at
night. After several follow-up questions, Pien
often determines that these patients suffer
from a sleep disorder called delayed sleep
phase syndrome (DSPS) - when the body's circadian
rhythm delays the urge to sleep until much
later than what is considered to be a normal
According to Dr. Pien, a delayed sleep phase is common in adolescents and young adults. “When a patient comes in, they think they're suffering from insomnia, saying they get into bed at 10 or 11 p.m. but have trouble falling asleep until hours later. If you dig deeper, they'll tell you that on nights they stay up late, they have no difficulty falling asleep and that they can stay asleep until late morning or early afternoon,” Pien explains.
Pien adds that these so-called “night owls” have difficulty making it to morning appointments or school. “The schedule their bodies are on is not the same schedule as the rest of the world. Part of it is 'how you're wired' and part of it can be due to late-night social behaviors.”
Pien says that delayed sleep phase syndrome is treatable. For many people, once an external schedule is imposed upon them for work or school, they are able to adjust their sleep habits, go to bed earlier, and meet their obligations. But for others, there is real difficulty in adjusting to an earlier sleep schedule and they should consult a sleep physician. Treatment may include a combination of behavior modification, medication, and early morning light exposure.