Snooze or lose: The problem with being sleepy

BP Illustration by Katie Feld

Nate Erez, Community Editor

Ever come home from a long day of school to do hours of homework and then go to sleep long after you want to as a result? Wake up the next morning dead tired, grab a coffee from Starbucks, and head to Fairfax and Olympic for a long day of school.

According to a poll conducted in December, about a third of Shalhevet students get eight hours of sleep or more on school nights.The largest number of students – 59, out of 109 polled during in their Advisory groups – sleep  between six and 7.5 hours per night.  Thirty-five sleep eight hours or more, while 15 said they average 5.5 hours or less.

That’s typical of teenagers nationwide. Studies have shown that except for weekends and summers, in recent years fewer and fewer teenagers get the amount of sleep their bodies require — at least 8.5 hours a night, according to the National Institutes of Health, which monitor and set standards for these sorts of things.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, most teenagers average around 7.4 hours of sleep a night. (

Still, although many experts see a serious issue with sleep deprivation –  caused by factors as varied as homework, commute times, and Facebook – others say people are different and have different sleep requirements.  Moreover, they confirm students’ impressions that common coping strategies, including drinking coffee, napping and “storing up” on sleep on the weekend, can actually help.

“Ideally, you go to sleep at a normal hour, you don’t use an alarm clock, and wake up naturally,” said Dr. Jerome Siegel, director of the Siegal Lab in UCLA’S Department of Psychiatry, in an interview with The Boiling Point.

“In the real world it’s not like that. There’s no magic number for everyone, but generally if you feel sleepy, you should be getting more sleep.”

The most serious side effect of sleepiness may be car accidents. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) reports that “drowsy driving” crashes kill more than 1,500 people a year nationwide.

“The most troubling consequences of sleepiness are injuries and deaths related to lapses in attention and delayed response times at critical moments, such as while driving,” the Foundation reports on its “Adolescent Sleep Needs and Patterns” page.

“Drowsiness or fatigue has been identified as a principle cause in at least 100,000 police-reported traffic crashes each year,” it continues, “killing more than 1,500 Americans and injuring another 71,000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Young drivers age 25 or under are involved in more than one-half of fall-asleep crashes.”

There are many studies on supporting this view. According to a 2007 article in the scientific journal Sleep Review, such crashes are more common among boys age 16 to 26 than in any other group.

Beyond that, however, Dr. Siegel said the most serious risk of sleep deprivation is being sleepy in general. And according to him, sleep deprivation causes no serious health effects other than being tired.

This could be good news for many Shalhevet students, some of whom take on a substantial amount of work. The number of extracurriculars, AP classes, and overall classwork a student takes on may disrupt sleeping patterns during the school week.

“Students face a lot of pressure contributing to studying late into the night,” said Dean of Students Roy Danovitch. “Students take on so much, not thinking about the long-term effects.”

AP Psychology teacher Tove Sunshine said lack of sleep can cause impaired reaction time, increased anxiety, weakened immune system, and even possible weight gain.

UCLA’s Dr. Siegel, however, said the effect depends on the student.

“It may not be healthy advice to quit extracurriculars,” said Dr. Siegel. “It’s a tradeoff. But it’s important to be physically fit and to be generally happy for your overall well-being.”

Jenny Newman, among the most actively involved seniors in extra-curriculars this year, participates in drama, debate (both Model U.N and Model Congress), Mock Trial and The Boiling Point. She also takes three AP’s and applied to 17 colleges, the most among this year’s seniors and totaling up for 22 essays.

When things get crazy and she gets less sleep, Jenny said, it affects her personality. But she thinks she still does well at what she’s doing.

“Sometimes, I make do with less sleep, especially if I’m having a rough week in terms of work and have tech going on in drama,” said Jenny.

“I’d say I get pretty irritable when I don’t sleep, and I get frustrated much more easily when I don’t get at least five hours. But I’m still able to function.”

Lack of sleep may also affect how well students do on exams, but Jenny said that hasn’t been her experience.

“I’ve aced tests with only a few hours of sleep,” Jenny said, “and I had barely slept at all the night before the SATs.”   Her SAT scores were good enough that she decided to apply to several Ivy League schools after she got the results.

Dr. Siegel said that was unusual, but not impossible.

“You definitely don’t perform as well when you’re sleepy,” said Dr. Siegel, “but on the other hand, no amount of sleep is going to compensate for not knowing the material. It’s better to study at a gradual pace.”

Another issue that interferes with sleep for Shalhevet students is how far away from school they happen to live. Students who live in the Valley must wake up 45 minutes to an hour earlier than students in the Pico or Hancock Park areas in order to arrive on time to their first period class at 7:50 a.m.

Sophomore Jordan Banafsheha, who commutes from Sherman Oaks, is on the varsity basketball team and also takes AP World History.

“I usually get home at around six on nights when I don’t have basketball practice and at 9:30 when I do,” said Jordan, who wakes up at 6:15 and leaves for school at 7:10 on most days.

But he has no regrets.

“I take AP World because I want to get into a good college, and I do basketball because I enjoy it,” Jordan said.  “I usually get around six hours of sleep.”

Senior Daniel Aronowitz takes five AP classes, but he doesn’t think they have a significant effect on the sleep he gets.

“The sleep I get doesn’t change,” noted Daniel, who deleted his Facebook account in freshman year in order to be more productive with his time; He averages six hours of sleep a night. “It’s the levels of procrastination. I have to procrastinate less.”

Some Shalhevet students say they store up on sleep on Shabbat and Sundays so that they can stay up late on weeknights.

“Everybody I know sleeps in on the weekend,” said junior Rachel Lester, who said she gets 14 hours of sleep from sundown Friday until Saturday night.

“Last Friday, I went to sleep before candlelighting,” Rachel said. “I woke up at 10:30 and then had dinner. It’s not so much storage as that I’ve gotten so little sleep during the week that I have to compensate.  I just fall asleep.”

A study conducted by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research concludes that our bodies are indeed able to successfully store sleep for use later.

“If you fill up your reserves and pay back your sleep debt ahead of time, you’re better equipped to deal with the sleep loss challenge,” said the study, published in February 2010.   (

Another influence on teens’ sleep totals is school start time. Teenagers have a different internal schedule, says Ms. Sunshine, from typical school hours.

“Teens do develop a biological clock that would have them sleep into mid-morning and staying up past midnight,” Ms. Sunshine said.

A large study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that the later the school day started, the more sleep students would get – even when the total number of school hours was the same. The entire Minneapolis School District pushed starting times back from 7:15 to 8:45 a.m.

Students got five or more extra hours of sleep per week on average, and administrators noticed a decrease rate in student-reported depression, as well as increased attendance and alertness.

After the Minnesota study came out, Shalhevet changed its start time from 7:30 a.m. to the current 7:50 a.m. in 2007.  Would it ever be moved even later?

“I follow these types of studies closely and there’s no doubt in my mind it would help,” said General Studies Principal Mr. Tranchi. “If everyone made the switch it would be easy, but as it is families have their own needs which run on the current schedule.”

If students get so little sleep, how can they function through the nine-hour school day?

“That’s just how my body works,” said sophomore Rose Bern. “A lot of mornings I have to wake up at five to study for AP World.”

Other students use coffee.

“I drink coffee to gain energy and put myself in a better mood after I’ve spent the most of the previous night studying or doing homework,” says freshman Maya Ben Shushan.

The National Sleep Foundation notes that caffeine can cause insomnia and be addictive, and that the boost in energy caffeine provides can be followed by a “crash” when it wears off – potentially negating its purpose.

But UCLA’s Dr. Siegel thinks caffeine, too, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In an interview on KPCC’s Airtalk*, Dr. Siegel said that like everything to do with sleep, caffeine affects different individuals differently.

“There’s a reason everyone is lining up at Starbucks,” Dr. Siegel said.  “For many, caffeine is very effective.  There is some evidence that coffee has health benefits, though there are individual differences.”

Short naps in the student lounge are another common remedy this year, now that the lounge has been newly equipped with a sofa-bed. Senior Chirlee Sabah often takes 35-minute naps during free periods.

“At certain times during the day I just crash, and after I get some extra sleep I can concentrate and everything makes more sense,” said Chirlee. “I don’t really sleep a lot, mainly because of work.”

The NSF states that 20-30 minute naps, so-called “power naps,” can be very helpful with drowsiness during the day, but that napping for too long leads to a feeling of grogginess for a short period after the nap and may also effect your sleep at night.

“There is fairly extensive [scientific] literature showing that daytime napping can at least in some individuals produce disturbed nighttime sleep,” said Dr. Siegel. “Again, there are individual differences, I don’t think we can make a blanket recommendation that everyone should nap.”

That cup of coffee might be a good idea in any case — but maybe you’d be awake enough to enjoy it if you’d spent a little more energy focusing on that essay last night, and less on procrastinating.  The most obvious way to maximize sleep is probably managing your time responsibly.

“Teens can help themselves get more sleep by being thoughtful about what commitments they take on and being productive when they are working,” said Ms. Sunshine. “Turn off Facebook, twitter, e-mail, phone etc.  You’ll accomplish far more in a shorter time and get to bed earlier.”

Mr. Danovitch advises to stay off the computer as much as possible.

“Studies have actually shown that the overuse of the internet can lead to insomnia; your body is being constantly stimulated,” Mr. Danovitch said.

History Department chair and AP World History teacher Dr. Michael Yoss advises taking on less of an academic load.

“If it were me, I would take fewer APs, look beautiful, and get more sleep,” said Dr. Yoss. “This AP thing is highly overrated.”

But in any case, if you are tired, stay off the road.

“When your sleep debt gets big enough, there is nothing you can do to stay awake,” warns an Auto Club website called How to Prevent Drowsy Driving.*

“You might be able to remain alert when you’re busy or excited, but as soon as it gets quiet your sleep debt takes over and you go to sleep….

“Don’t drive when you are sleepy. If you become sleepy while driving, pull over and take a break… Drive alert — drive alive.”