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A new study found that teenagers with sleep problems are more reactive to stress.

Around 70 percent of adolescents in the U.S. do not get enough sleep, meaning most teenagers know how poor sleep affects their daily lives. A new study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that these effects can be even more damaging, though. The study, which was published in the December online issue of the journal Physiology and Behavior, found that adolescents with sleep problems are more reactive to stress, which can contribute to issues in academics, behavior and overall health.

Prior research has found how sleep disruptions affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, a key part of the neuroendocrine system that controls reactions to stress and regulates body processes. While the relationship between the HPA axis and sleep has been extensively studied in childhood and adulthood, little is known about that relationship in adolescence, despite it being a key age for development due to puberty.

That's why the UAB researchers, led by psychology professor Sylvie Mrug and a team of colleagues from Arizona State University, set out to determine how the developing HPA axis is impacted by the common sleep problems of adolescents. The researchers observed two aspects of sleep, duration and reported problems, as well as the participants' cortisol levels before and after social stress. They also considered how these results varied based on gender, but chose to limit this round of research to African-American adolescents, with a subject pool of 84 teenagers with an average age of 13.

"This particular population is more likely to experience insufficient sleep, and their functioning is more negatively affected by lower sleep quality, so we knew that finding results for this demographic could be especially important," Mrug told Science Daily.

Mrug and her colleagues gave the participants the children's version of the common Trier Social Stress Test. The evaluation involves speaking and computing mental math problems to an audience to measure their psychological responses to stress. They also looked at cortisol levels before and after this test by taking saliva samples from the participants. To complete the data, the teens were asked about their bedtimes, wake times, sleep problems and general sleep quality during a typical week. Their parents were also asked to report on their impression of these details as well. The most common sleep problems reported in the study were needing multiple reminders to get up, not getting a good night's sleep, feeling tired during the day and not being satisfied with sleep.

The researchers found that the adolescents who reported more of these sleep problems or longer sleep duration released more cortisol during and after the stress test. They also found that this effect was even stronger in female participants, suggesting that teenage girls may be more sensitive to stress with poor sleep. Mrug said these findings confirmed the research team's original belief that sleep problems cause more severe reactions to sleep, and the study provides a valuable insight on how harmful poor sleep can be on a teenager's health.

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