Study Links Sleep Habits To Substance Abuse Risk In Teens

A new study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) suggests that factors related to sleep timing and duration can predict cannabis use and binge drinking in teens and young adults.

According to study results, a preference for later bedtimes and shorter weekday sleep duration predicted an elevated risk of increased cannabis use in the following year.

Additionally, later bedtimes and later weekend midsleep predicted a greater likelihood of any cannabis use during the following year.

Greater preference for late nights, daytime sleepiness, later sleep timing on weekends, and shorter sleep duration on weekends and weekdays all predicted an elevated risk for more severe binge drinking during the following year.

Sleep is the Most Important Meal of the Day

The study, which utilized multiple years of data from the National Consortium on Alcohol and Neurodevelopment in Adolescence (NCANDA), included 431 females and 408 males between the ages of 12 and 27.

The study analyzed participants in two groups; middle school and high school students (age 12-18) and high school graduates (age 18-27).

Study results accounted for controlled factors like sex, age, race, parental education, and substance use during the previous year.

According to AASM, sleep variables only predicted cannabis use in high school and middle school students, while different sleep pattern characteristics predicted binge drinking in the two participant groups.

According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data from 2017, only 25 percent of high school students get enough sleep on school nights, increasing the risks of automobile crashes, sports-related injuries, substance abuse, and physical and mental health problems.

“Overall, the results suggest that teens in middle and high school may be more vulnerable to sleep-related risk for substance abuse,” says lead author Brant Hasler. The particular pattern of sleep predictors in the middle school and high school sample is consistent with the ‘circadian misalignment’ caused by early school start times.”

A Case for Later School Start Times

Early school start times are a contributing factor, according to AASM, which recommends that school begin at 8:30 a.m. or later.

AASM says later school start times would support an adequate opportunity for adolescents to get sufficient amounts of sleep on school nights.

Hasler says sleep is a modifiable behavior that is potentially easier to alter than directly addressing substance abuse.

AASM says sleep duration, irregular sleep timing, and insomnia are common sleep problems among college students that can translate to anxiety and depression symptoms.

“Furthermore, other studies show college-age teens are more willing to hear about changing their sleep than changing their substance use,” says Hasler. “Thus, focusing on improving teen sleep—including through delaying school start times—may be an underutilized but effective approach to reducing risk for problematic substance use.

According to AASM, the study results show that there should be a greater focus on sleep characteristics as potential risk factors for substance abuse in adolescents and young adults to inform future areas of intervention.

The recently published abstract of the AASM study will be presented orally on Friday, June 11, during a virtual version of the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

The meeting is a joint venture of AASM and the Sleep Research Society.