Sleep Drive and Your Body Clock

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Most people notice that they naturally experience different levels of sleepiness and alertness throughout the day, but what causes these patterns? Sleep is regulated by two body systems: sleep/wake homeostasis and the circadian biological clock .

When we have been awake for a long period of time, sleep/wake homeostasis tells us that a need for sleep is accumulating and that it is time to sleep. It also helps us maintain enough sleep throughout the night to make up for the hours of being awake. If this restorative process existed alone, it would mean that we would be most alert as our day was starting out, and that the longer we were awake, the more we would feel like sleeping. In this way, sleep/wake homeostasis creates a drive that balances sleep and wakefulness.

Our internal circadian biological clocks, on the other hand, regulate the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day. The circadian rhythm dips and rises at different times of the day, so adults' strongest sleep drive generally occurs between 2:00-4:00 am and in the afternoon between 1:00-3:00 pm, although there is some variation depending on whether you are a “morning person” or “evening person.” The sleepiness we experience during these circadian dips will be less intense if we have had sufficient sleep, and more intense when we are sleep deprived. The circadian rhythm also causes us to feel more alert at certain points of the day, even if we have been awake for hours and our sleep/wake restorative process would otherwise make us feel more sleepy.

Changes to this circadian rhythm occur during adolescence, when most teens experience a sleep phase delay. This shift in teens' circadian rhythm causes them to naturally feel alert later at night, making it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11:00 pm. Since most teens have early school start times along with other commitments, this sleep phase delay can make it difficult to get the sleep teens need -- an average of 9 1/4 hours, but at least 8 hours. This sleep deprivation can influence