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The dangers of sleep deprivation

The semester is young, and the numb stares and zombie-like gaits of the chronically sleep-deprived haven’t started haunting library lounges – yet.

As the semester wears on and the crunch of classes and jobs begins grinding away much needed hours of shuteye, the familiar faces of the walking dead will inevitably appear.

Sleep deprivation, especially when it becomes habitual, can not only harm students’ health, but can also seriously impede their ability to learn and process new information.

“My attention span is definitely a little shorter,” said Nedia Riaz, a sophomore majoring in marketing. “I cram for exams. I’m always up all night the night before, but I tend to do well that way.”

A 2001 study by the American College of Health found only 11 percent of college students are getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, and 73 percent reported having occasional sleeping problems.

That’s a problem, said Leonard Kirklen, an adviser at the Counseling Center for Human Development who works with students to develop healthy sleeping habits and ways of coping with stress.

“In a general sense, it throws the body’s balance off so that physically, mentally and emotionally, we’re not up to our potential,” Kirklen said.

When students consistently practice poor sleeping habits – either sleeping too little or sleeping irregular hours – the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep, is disrupted and throws off the body’s circadian rhythms.

Students who regularly eschew sleep for study tend to cope with stress poorly, become irritable more easily and get sick more often, Kirklen said. Additionally, the brain’s ability to focus and remember significantly suffers.

When students study while tired, the brain’s ability to convert information into long-term memory is hampered and attempts at conceptual or analytical thinking become particularly difficult. Those cramming into the wee hours of the morning are working against themselves.

“Anyone in a more technical field or in a field such as business or math, where there are a lot of numbers and equations, is going to be more affected because they have to understand the concept and then be able to apply it,” Kirklen said. “That’s abstract reasoning, and it’s the first thing to go.”

Seeking to mitigate some of these effects, students may turn to stimulants such as coffee or caffeine pills, and this may work – for a while. Studies have shown that caffeine, when used infrequently and by individuals getting enough sleep, can have positive effects on a person’s ability to learn by increasing energy levels and improving concentration and focus. The problem is that people often begin to overdo it, Kirklen said. Then they overstimulate themselves and crash.

“A person can literally drink three cups of coffee and fall asleep,” Kirklen said. USF commuters face an additional risk from sleep deprivation: driving with little or no sleep and possibly dozing off behind the wheel. A study published in the British Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that people who drive after being awake for 17 to 19 hours performed worse than those with a blood alcohol level of .05 percent, the legal limit for drunk driving in most western European countries.

Although the burdens of classes and jobs might make sleep loss inevitable, students who want to get the most out of the precious few hours they sleep should avoid certain activities that make falling asleep more difficult and lessen the quality of sleep.

According to, exercise should be avoided three hours before bedtime, and smoking for six. Although it can help students fall asleep, alcohol shouldn’t be used as a sleeping aid because it affects the quality and depth of sleep. Caffeine should be avoided for four to six hours before bedtime because it can delay the onset of sleep and result in premature rousing from sleep.

Students who want to learn about methods for more regular and restful sleep should contact the USF Counseling Center for Human Development at 974-2831.