Mary Jo Podgurski

Column Mary Jo Podgurski

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 68 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

How much sleep is needed?

How much sleep is needed?

July 17, 2013

Q. How long can a person go without sleep and still function? I sleep only about three to four hours a night and I do whatever I want but my mom says I don’t get enough sleep. I think she’s wrong. Can you help? I say as long as my grades are good it doesn’t matter how much sleep I get. She says I need sleep to grow, which I think is weird.

15-year-old female

Mary Jo’s Response: If you know me well, then you know I’m not going to “take sides.” I will be happy to give you some facts. The truth is you and your mom are both correct.

As a young person, your body needs to rest; sleep deprivation can cause depression, contribute to accidents and result in drowsiness during class (see question 2). While asleep your body rests and regenerates. The National Sleep Foundation ( calls sleep “food for the brain.” You need sleep.

On the other hand, each individual is different and a person’s sleep needs are not only unique but will also change throughout life. When I was young, I longed to sleep until noon – waking at 6 a.m. during high school was torture. Now that I’m older, I find my internal “alarm clock” makes me rise before the sun. Here are just a few facts about sleep and teens:

• That internal “alarm clock” I mentioned is actually called the body’s circadian rhythm. These biological rhythms determine our sleep patterns and also influence hormone production, hunger, and body temperature.

• Some researchers associate the body’s circadian rhythms with obesity and depression.

• Well-respected research shows that adolescents need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night.

• Most teens fall short of that amount – one respected study found that only 15 percent of teens reached the recommended amount of sleep on school nights.

The situation is complicated because teen brains naturally work on late-night schedules. Many teens simply aren’t ready to sleep when adults expect them to be tired; conversely, many teens prefer to sleep late in the morning. This sleep pattern is related to an adolescent change in the circadian rhythm. Some researchers connect this change to the fact that the brain hormone melatonin is produced later at night in teens than it is for kids and adults, making it harder for teens to fall asleep.

Some adults are calling for later school start times to accommodate teen sleep patterns. Until that happens, however, you need to adapt. Do any of these hints help?

• Naps: Sleep doesn’t need to occur only at night. A “power nap” daily can help.

• Chart your patterns: Learn about your body and keep a sleep journal. You may think you’re only sleeping only three to four hours a night but find that you “crash” and sleep for long periods on the weekend.

• Be aware: Don’t use caffeine close to your bedtime. Avoid eating right before you go to sleep.

• Exercise: Regular exercise is good for your body and your mind. Complete your exercise routine at least three hours before trying to sleep.

• Create a sleep environment: Avoid exposing yourself to bright lights right before going to bed. Turn off social media.

• Release the day’s tension: Meditate, read, listen to music, take a bath, pray or do some other relaxing activity that will help take your mind off of drama. Stop texting!

One final thought. Our daughter, Lisa, did an honors thesis as an undergrad that looked at the social culture surrounding sleep. Entitled “Sleep is for the Weak: Exploring the Meanings of Sleep Deprivation at Carnegie Mellon,” her work discovered that a cultural currency existed that encouraged her peers to sleep less.

Students took pride in staying awake to study; comparing how little one slept was common. I’ve heard teens brag about pulling all-nighters; at our lock-ins I force myself to stay awake with our peer educators and I believe peer pressure keeps some of them awake. Be yourself. Listen to your body. Give it time to grow.

Peer educator response: According to current research teens need about 9 to 9 1/2 hours of sleep a night to have the ideal rest for the still-developing brain. Three to four hours is nowhere near enough, as sleep deprivation can be serious. But some of us normally only get about three to four hours of sleep a night and are still capable of functioning well enough. Some people even seem to work better off fewer hours of sleep than more.

Q.No matter how much I sleep at night I can’t stay awake in my statistics class. Maybe it’s because I’m taking it in the summer, which was dumb.

19-year-old male

Mary Jo’s response: Ah, statistics. Check out my response to question 1. I’d also add that the class topic or the heat of the day may be causing you to feel drowsy. Our peer educators weighed in against the instructor, sadly. Perhaps your body’s rhythms are opposed to summer math classes. Good luck.

Peer educator response: If you’re not passionate or interested, then you won’t stay awake. Things you can do to stay awake: Monster, 5-Hour Energy, or get a different teacher that makes the learning fun. Sometimes it’s the teacher and not the student. Boredom can make it easy to fall asleep in class. Trying a new teacher is never a bad idea.



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