Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

Its Behavioral and Societal Roots

Society's role in a common sleep problem

Delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) is a preventable sleep problem that is widespread among adolescents. This syndrome describes the inability to fall asleep and wake up at preferred times. In other words, it is often caused by erratic bedtimes and wake times. For instance, teens naturally have their sleep cycle shift towards later in the night as they break away from their parents.  So teens often find themselves unable to fall asleep until late in the night and unable to wake up with their alarm in the morning for a school day that is usually too early for their bodies. My colleague, Wendy Troxel gave a great TED Talk on this subject.

But teenagers are just one group of people that is effected by DSPS. It is similar to what we commonly refer to as jet-lag and often impacts shift-workers. In these examples, erratic sleep habits confuse your body and prevent it from developing the desired times of falling asleep and waking up. The syndrome is often characterized by staying up late and sleeping in on weekends and then waking up early on weekdays and taking an afternoon nap. However, it may not necessarily be characterized this way and can occur for any type of irregular schedule. Treatments are behavioral, and include becoming more aware of the importance of consistent sleep patterns. Sleep coaches and specialists often work with clients to your schedule appropriately.


Above is an example of a sleep diary that represents a typical pattern for individuals with this syndrome. What is happening in this example of a teenagers sleep is they are socializing late on the weekends. Their erratic schedule is then combined with pressure to wake up earlier for school on weekdays. Shift workers are another group of people who also suffer from this syndrome because of schedules that they can't control. Whether its late night socializing, or work-based pressure, there are simple solutions to adjusting your schedule. These include adjusting your light exposure time, wind down time with melatonin, exercise time, and meal time to address this issue. 

The Circadian Rhythm and DSPS

The reason delayed sleep phase syndrome is so disruptive is because it confuses your body's naturally occuring circadian rhythm. Our bodies work on a 24 hour clock largely dictated by the sun. By controlling cues, called zeitgebers, that our environment exposes us to like exercise, sleep times, meal times, and sunlight times, we can further counteract delayed sleep phase syndrome. The more regular we are with these habits the healthier everyones sleep can be.