In response to hormone shifts, biological changes and experiences with culture, the teen years are a time of significant brain development as pathways rewire and grow. A lot is going on under the skin, and with developments in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other innovations that give an insight into the evolving mind, our understanding continues to grow rapidly.
As the brain overproduces specialized neurons while pruning back unused, redundant connections, adolescent brain growth is a combination of expansion and regression. The approach is comparable to fruit trees that in the spring send out loads of branches, which a gardener then prunes back to maintain a healthy tree.
It is highly complex and variable: nothing is modified in some brain regions, while up to half of all links are cut down in others!
Interestingly, the influence of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the brain area responsible for preparation and impulse regulation, is momentarily restricted by development and pruning, which research shows appears to develop last, partly explaining why teenagers participate in high-risk behavior. In addition, when faced with detrimental stimuli and effects, the amygdala, the portion of the brain that reacts to threats, activate much less in teens than in adults.
In addition, those brain regions, the brain neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and motivation, peaking in mid-adolescence and then decreasing into adulthood, become more receptive to dopamine-reward circuits. For instance, during ages 11-15, dopamine sensitivity to sweets is much greater than during early adulthood (19-25 years). It is important to encourage healthy development during adolescence with all this going on.
A good lifestyle goes a long way and should include healthy eating, stress control, exercise, and healthy sleep, with emerging evidence pointing to sleep as a key factor in healthy brain development in particular.
The brain pathways that favor higher-risk activity in teens are referred to as "hot cognition," and these circuits appear to be enhanced by sleep deprivation. There is a hormonal change during puberty towards delayed sleep onset and later awakening, which typically leads to deprivation during the school week. Given the link between sleep deprivation and hot cognition, it makes a lot of sense to move to later school starting times. Teens need more time spent sleeping than adults, along with later waking up. Nine to eleven hours of sleep without interruption is vital.
Accessible research shows the diverse ways that healthy development is facilitated by sound sleep. Each stage of sleep provides the adolescent brain with specific benefits. The brain generates alpha and theta waves during stages one and two as well as sleep "spindles," which are wave frequency upswings. Following daytime learning of motor skills, sleep spindles increase and help teens "practice" an operation during sleep, improving coordination and moves.
In response to the calming neurotransmitter GABA, transforming through stages three and four, longer delta waves form, enabling deep sleep. Development hormones pulse across the body during this process, stimulating muscle and body tissue growth and repair.
With even slight reductions in delta wave sleep, researchers found lower white blood cell counts. By controlling metabolism, daily deep sleep also promotes lean muscle mass and weight loss.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM), the time of night when dreaming happens, is the next step of sleep. For mammals and birds, REM is a special process and is an important time of rest and refueling. Rhythmic generations of REM are activated by the brain stem's neuronal activity, and the brain stem takes over central control and controls body function throughout REM.
The brain resets other neurotransmitters by handing over control, particularly serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. During REM, the neuronal activity also induces dreaming, which is focused on signaling to other brain regions from the brain stem, forming waves of activity that enable the body to continue sleeping, and transmitting complex data to the nervous system about muscle control and perception.
The brain perceives the stimuli from the waves as actual, triggering sensory perception in the deeper REM phase of sleep that gives dreams their vivid, three-dimensional nature. Long-term memory storage is encouraged as the waves enter the hippocampus and memories are reorganized and simplified, improving imaginative functioning and learning. Sleep waves are especially important for the development of teenagers, as this is the primary period for the above-mentioned pruning and growth.
Sleep is clearly important to adolescent well-being by promoting memory, learning, health of the immune system, neurotransmitter regulation, and overall growth and repair. The teen years, such as athletics and extracurricular and social events, add a variety of new demands on time.
Sleep disorders are very common in puberty, along with increased use of caffeine products and late-night TV and computer use. Successful help is provided through lifestyle steps and natural therapies, so your teen will enjoy all the benefits of sleep during this crucial period.
A natural starting point for sleep support is environmental approaches. For teenagers, technology has a huge influence on the quality of sleep. WiFi and mobile phone electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) affect the circadian rhythm by increasing stress hormones such as cortisol.
Blue light also triggers sleep disruptions from the use of laptops and smartphones. A recent Harvard University study showed that blue light suppresses melatonin, contributing to sleep disorders and prolonged secretion of cortisol. Switching off routers and phones in the evening and investing in screen covers and glasses for blue light filtering will help minimize exposure.
Botanicals have a centuries-old tradition of safe sleep care. Relaxing herbs, called nervines, in particular, lower stress hormones while encouraging relaxing intense, sustained sleep neurotransmitters. You can take each of the following herbs 30 minutes before bed as a tea (1-2 cups) or as a tincture/glycerite in a little water. Increase to two droppers for chamomile tincture, and for lavender, decrease to 1⁄2 droppers.
Chamomile Matricaria recutita
Holy basil or Tulsi Ocimum sanctum
Lemon balm Melissa officinalis
Milky oats Avena sativa
Passionflower Passiflora incarnata
A gentle, caffeine-free, warming tea that supports relaxation and sound sleep.
It replenishes neurotransmitters and hormones involved in the sleep cycle by consuming a variety of foods, fruits, healthy fats, and proteins. In particular, good sleep and general mood are improved by vitamin B6, magnesium, tryptophan, L-theanine, and omega-3 fatty acids. It is present in pistachios, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, poultry, cold-water fish, leafy greens, potatoes, and bananas.
Vitamin B6 facilitates serotonin transfer to melatonin. Magnesium is present in nuts and seeds, dark leafy greens, fish, and whole grains and supports a balanced nervous system as well. Supplementing with vitamin B6 and magnesium is effective for healing insomnia, along with improving these nutrients in the diet.
Our sleep-wake cycle is also influenced by some amino acids. Tryptophan, which is present in meat, oats, dates, milk, and nuts, promotes melatonin to aid in the onset of sleep. (Combine tryptophan with a whole grain to improve absorption, like sliced turkey on whole-grain bread.)
The amino acid L-theanine, present in green tea, enhances GABA synthesis, whereas glycine, readily available in high-protein foods such as fish, eggs, legumes, dairy, and meat, promotes sleep onset and deep-stage sleep. In the study, supplemental glycine for people with insomnia increases both sleep onset and sleep efficiency.
In northern climates, preserving optimum vitamin D is more difficult and plays an important role. With vitamin D deficiency, inflammatory compounds called cytokines are released by the body, interfering with the conversion of serotonin to melatonin.
A key move for circadian rhythm health is increasing vitamin D levels, especially in the winter. In addition, a healthy base for sleep quality is established by avoiding caffeine and chemical additives and focusing on an anti-inflammatory diet.
We also know for sure that healthy sleep is a core pillar for adolescent well-being, and lifestyle measures alone will encourage better sleep habits for most adolescents. The complexities of the developing brain continue to be unraveled by research, and our knowledge will continue to expand with continued developments in sleep science. For a healthy, successful boost, try these natural therapies if more support is needed.