In a recent experiment on sleep deprivation, the participants, who were in their early 20s, were divided into four groups. Group 1 volunteers slept for four hours per night over a two-week period, Group 2 volunteers slept for six hours, Group 3 members slept for eight hours, and Group 4 members had no sleep at all for three days straight. At the end of the two weeks, those who had slept for eight hours a night functioned well—no surprise there. But the big surprise was that there was no difference in performance level between those who had slept four or six hours for two weeks and those who had not slept at all for three days. The experiment showed that adolescents cannot perform well without any sleep but also that they can’t perform well with much less than the nine hours they require.

The Impact of Sleep Deprivation

What exactly is less than optimal performance? Is it really all that bad? As you’ll see in the following sections, statistics show that chronic sleep deprivation puts teens in a blunted, muted “slough state,” severely reducing their ability to learn, behave, and live at their best.

Health Issues

Lack of sleep impacts teens’ physical health in several different ways. For one, it impairs their immune system, interfering with their white blood cells’ ability to fight off infection in the bloodstream; experiments have shown that once in sleep debt the body’s number of T cells decreases by 30 to 40 percent. That suggests that sleep-deprived teens are much more likely to catch the colds, flus, and other acute and chronic illnesses that seem to be permanent inhabitants of most high schools and teen activity centers. And that of course means they’ll be missing classes and sports events, with all that entails, feeling crummy and worn out, and behaving even more like bears than ever. It could also mean they’re more susceptible to catching potentially serious viruses or developing intercurrent, or coexisting, illnesses.

Once tired teens come down with a cold or flu, their compromised immune system may also cause the condition to hang on longer. The National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research warns that sleep

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement