Study Suggests Teen Sleep Issues Lead to Cannabis Use and Binge Drinking

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Factors including sleep timing and sleep duration in teens and young adults are associated with an increased risk of cannabis use and binge drinking, according to recently published research.

An abstract of the study, “Self-Reported Sleep and Circadian Characteristics Predict Future Substance Use: A Longitudinal Analysis from the NCANDA Study,” was published last month in an online supplement to the journal Sleep.

To complete the study, researchers analyzed data from the National Consortium on Alcohol and Neurodevelopment in Adolescence (NCANDA) study to examine whether multiple sleep factors in any year predict substance use the following year. The authors of the study noted in their introduction that mounting “evidence indicates that sleep characteristics predict later substance use and related problems during adolescence and young adulthood.”

Most previous studies, however, have assessed a limited range of sleep characteristics, included study subjects of a limited age range, and had relatively few follow-up assessments. For this research, data from 831 participants of NCANDA, including 431 females, was reviewed. Subjects were 12 to 21 years old at the onset of the study.

The research revealed that greater eveningness (late-night preference and delayed sleep time) and a shorter weekday sleep duration predicted an increased risk for additional days of cannabis use the following year. Additionally, greater eveningness and later weekend midsleep predicted a greater likelihood of any cannabis use the following year.

The researchers also analyzed the data for sleep associations with the severity of binge alcohol drinking. Greater eveningness, greater daytime sleepiness, later sleep timing on the weekend, and shorter sleep duration on the weekend and during the week were all associated with an increased risk of binge drinking by test subjects the following year.

“Overall, the results suggest that teens in middle and high school may be more vulnerable to sleep-related risk for substance use,” said lead author Brant P. Hasler, a researcher with a doctorate in clinical psychology and an associate professor of psychiatry, psychology, and clinical and translational science in the Center for Sleep and Circadian Science at the University of Pittsburgh. “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.”

Most Teens Don’t Get Enough Sleep

Data from the CDC shows that only a quarter of high school students get a sufficient amount of sleep on school nights, citing early school start times as a factor contributing to the deficit. As a result, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that middle school and high school start times should be 8:30 a.m. or later to allow students to get enough sleep on school nights. The authors of the study noted that enacting later sleep times may also help reduce the incidence of substance use among teens.

“Sleep is modifiable behavior, and perhaps easier to modify than going after substance use directly,” said Hasler. “Furthermore, other studies show college-age teens are more willing to hear about changing their sleep than changing their substance use. 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.”

The researchers wrote that the study was consistent with previous research and noted that an awareness of teens’ sleep habits could help parents and health professionals manage substance misuse by young people.

“Our findings extend prior work, indicating that eveningness and later sleep timing, as well as shorter sleep duration, especially on weekdays, are risk factors for future cannabis use and alcohol misuse,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. “These results underscore a need for greater attention to sleep characteristics as potential risk factors for substance use in adolescents and young adults and may inform future areas of intervention.”