What is Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome?

Tired Woman eating breakfast

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome affects millions of people around the world – particularly teenagers and adolescents.

If you struggle to get to sleep when you want to – and you find getting up on time in the morning almost impossible too – you might just have Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder...

What is Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome?

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS), sometimes called Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder, is a sleeping disorder in which you experience problems with your body clock. It has links with insomnia and depression.

A specific of the disorder is that a person with DSPS will struggle to go to sleep when they want to – usually taking two hours or more, longer than normal. They will then have their waking time delayed by a matching amount of time the following morning because of this.

If you have DSPS, you don't sleep more or less than the average. You may describe your sleeping pattern to other people as making you something of a “night owl”; you're more likely to feel active in the evening and during the night.

You can have DSPS at any age, but you're more likely to have it as a teenager or adolescent. It has been estimated that somewhere between 1 in 20 and 1 in 8 teenagers worldwide may have DSPS.

Businessman yawning  at business meeting

What causes DSPS?

The exact cause of Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome isn't known.

However, it has been suggested that it is a natural – or, at least, common – reaction to the internal clock changes experienced during puberty. This might explain why it is so prevalent among adolescents.

It has also been suggested that the hormone melatonin – the hormone which helps you control your internal body clock – may be present in the wrong amounts at the wrong time in DSPS sufferers.

One of the key things to understand about DSPS is that this is not a chosen behaviour. It's not just teenagers being lazy teenagers, in other words.

That said, there are certain things which can exacerbate the condition:

  • Using screens before bedtime
  • Drinking caffeinated drinks or any other kind of stimulants close to bedtime
  • Taking sleep tablets or anything else which interferes with the usual sleep schedule

Delayed sleep phase disorder – symptoms

Common Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder symptoms include the following (these are normally required to persist for at least seven days before a diagnosis can be reached):

1) Difficulty falling asleep at the desired time

People with DSPS will struggle to get to sleep when they want to unless they go to bed very late. Two hours later than planned is the usual delay estimate. This may result in complaints that they are suffering from insomnia or another sleep disorder.

2) Trouble waking up at the desired time

Because the “signal” they receive from their internal clock is delayed, a DSPS sufferer will often struggle to wake up at the desired time.

A common result of this is the appearance of laziness:

A parent may not realise that their child has been lying awake for two extra hours after bedtime. They will almost certainly notice when their child doesn't get up for school on time, however!

3) Often being tired during the day

Having DSPS isn't actually a guarantee that you will sleep badly. You may, in fact, be able to get a very good night's sleep with the condition.

Yet because young DSPS sufferers, in particular, may be woken up before they naturally want to – and before they have had a decent amount of sleep – they may often feel very tired or drowsy during the day.

4) No sleep problems if left to their own devices

Many of the problems associated with Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome go away when a person with DSPS is able to follow the circadian rhythm of their own internal body clock.

At the weekend, outside of the school week, for example, a teenager with DSPS may go to bed late, sleep right through for a healthy number of hours and awaken feeling properly refreshed. As long as, that is, they don't suffer from any other sleep disorders.

In this case, the only noticeable effect of DSPS may be that their sleep will be offset by a period of two or more hours from what might be considered a socially acceptable time.

5) Depression or behaviour problems

The result of being constantly fatigued from lack of sleep can manifest in a number of ways.

If at school age, a sufferer might struggle in class, want to miss school or have a lower than expected academic performance. All of this is a result of not being able to get enough sleep or having their sleep constantly disrupted.

They may also experience depression or depression-like symptoms or start to over-use sleep aids or alcohol.

Could it be something else?

Because of their nature, sleep disorders can be difficult to diagnose.

Many of the symptoms of Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder may also be attributable to:

  • Other sleep disorders
  • Other medical conditions
  • A mental health disorder
  • Medication
  • Substance abuse

This makes it important to always visit your doctor or a sleep specialist if you are having trouble sleeping.

Delayed sleep phase syndrome – treatment

There are many things you can do to try to improve your sleeping pattern:

You might try to reduce your stress levels, take steps to improve your general health and fitness or use a sleep aid or sleep monitoring device.

There are two currently existing Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome treatments:

  • 1. Bright Light Therapy: light therapy can be used to cause a gradual change in your sleeping patterns.
  • 2. Chronotherapy: this is a less common technique than bright light therapy because you will need to alter your normal daily schedule to have the treatment take place. It involves gradually delaying your bedtime over a period of days, hopefully resetting your circadian rhythm.
Woman Sleeping

If in doubt

Most people make at least one attempt to alter their own sleeping pattern before consulting their doctor. There are many sleep aid devices and apps on the market which may help you do this.

If you're in any doubt about whether you are experiencing Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder symptoms or you might need treatment though, it is always worth discussing it with your doctor or a sleep specialist.

Lynda Ishida My job is to write but my hobby is to research the latest tech innovations, especially for health & wellness.