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Sleep Deprivation during Childhood Linked to Substance Abuse

A recent study by Idaho State University’s Psychology Department found that cases of substance abuse developed during young adulthood—including alcohol and illicit substances—can be linked to sleep deprivation during childhood.

A professor from the department, Maria Wong, conducted a 12-year study on childhood sleeplessness and examined children from as early as the age of 3 and kept track of the participants as late as their early 20s. The children included in Professor Wong’s investigation totaled 386 children (94 female and 292 male) from across the country. Professor Wong visited the children on a regular basis (every three years with the younger children, and annually with the older children) and engaged the children and their parents in a series of interviews. Criteria obtained during these visits involved rating the participants’ relationship with their parents, academic performance, physical health, and choices concerning drug use.

Professor Wong discovered that participants who had experienced sleep deprivation or difficulties in childhood were twice as likely to develop substance abuse disorders in adolescence or early adulthood as the children who did not experience sleeping problems. Children who suffered difficulties with sleep during the ages of 3–5 also suffered sleep deprivation during the ages of 11–17. These children were most likely to develop substance abuse disorders between the ages of 18–21.

While the study demonstrates a connection between sleep deprivation and substance abuse, it still does not explain how the relationship is formed. One theoretical explanation is that individuals who are unable to properly allow their bodies to rest and recharge through healthy sleep become emotionally and physically agitated, experience slowed thought processing and productivity, and overall feel less control over their bodies and impulses. This feeling of inadequacy may lead these individuals to seek alternative methods for attaining self-control, such as using stimulants to combat listlessness, or consuming alcohol or other narcotics to help dull their pain, produce a calming effect, or medicate their insomnia. While using an illicit substance might give the user the impression of achieving self-control, the user’s body will eventually become dependent on the substance and build increasing tolerance, and instead lead to further loss of functionality as the addiction progresses.

Some of the studies’ participants developed drug habits involving alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, cocaine, or heroin. Abuse of these substances causes significant damage to the brain and central nervous system, impaired judgment, delayed reflexes, disorientation, and unconsciousness, among other serious side effects; some of Professor Wong’s subjects reported experiencing multiple episodes of drunk driving, blackouts, and binge drinking. Sleep deficiencies during early age predicted the onset of alcohol, cigarette, and illicit drug abuse in boys, and alcohol abuse in girls in later life.

The cause of most sleep disorders in children is unknown. While experiencing sleeping difficulties might be genetic, some the participating children’s ability to sleep was affected by their home environment. Factors such as unsafe living conditions like hostile or abusive families can threaten children’s ability to attain regular, adequate sleep. Some of the study’s cases involved parents who themselves were substance abusers. According to the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the transmission of alcoholism from one generation to the next is affected by both genetic inheritance and environment.

Parents may not realize just how important sleep is to their children’s health. Sleep allows children’s developing bodies to physically revitalize and grow, and enables their brain function by storing memory, boosting neurotransmission activity, and helping children become mentally fit. Children who experience high levels of stress due to various reasons can suffer sleep deprivation and in turn develop unhealthy mental or behavioral disorders. Substance abuse is one such example of a serious repercussion caused by deprived health and wellness during childhood. Sleep deficiency can also cause poor physical health, mood changes, self-injury, or unintentional death.

Posted on April 16th, 2010

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