In a National Institutes of Health study, rats were deprived of sleep to see what the effects would be. One group of rats was continually deprived of REM sleep (for information about REM sleep, see Chapter 3). A second group was deprived of all sleep. Rats normally live for two to three years, but those that were allowed no REM sleep lived for only five weeks. The rats denied all sleep lived for only three weeks.

The cause of their greatly shortened life spans? Sleep deprivation in animals produces a condition that eventually becomes lethal. Completely sleep-deprived animals develop a syndrome of hypothalamic dysfunction: They overeat, lose weight, lose hair, develop skin lesions, and eventually die of infection. However, researchers have discovered that the syndrome is reversible with sleep—studies suggest that sleep restores the immune system and the antioxidant balance.

deprivation can be “a significant barrier to recovery, potentially exacerbating a primary illness.” So a bug that a rested teen could fight off in two or three days might stay around for four or five. And once the virus is finally gone, it’s very likely to come back; sleep deprivation also contributes to recurring and chronic conditions. That cough your teen just never seems to be able to shake could be the result of her ongoing sleep deficit. (It could also be the result of allergies or asthma, which also are associated with sleep deprivation.)

In addition to catching more colds and flus, sleep-deprived teens have a higher rate of headaches. Often kids show up at my clinic complaining of headaches and sometimes severe migraines. Because puberty is a peak time for the onset of migraines, many of these kids want medication to relieve the pain. But it often turns out, after consultation and testing, that these teens simply need more sleep, not a drug. When rested, their incidence of migraines may drop dramatically and tension headaches disappear.

A 15-year-old patient of mine I’ll call Henry came to me complaining of severe and frequent headaches. The headaches had gotten so bad that Henry, who was an honor student, had been missing a lot of

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