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Getting enough sleep is important as students head back to school or off to college, K-State expert says

By Michelle Hall


Did I just catch you yawning?

yawningAccording to Art Rathbun, the United States is becoming a sleep deprived nation more and more.

"Now that we're in the technological age, people have access to everything 24 hours a day, so we can work 24 hours a day," said Rathbun, who is a counselor and biofeedback specialist at Kansas State University's counseling services. "There's the expectation that people will do more. We haven't dropped activities, just added more. We've created a culture in which it is easy to become sleep deprived."

That doesn't mean we've been able to evolve so sleep isn't as vital, however. Every one of us has a different sleep need, which changes throughout our lifetime. And especially at back-to-school time, it's important to note the sleep needs of different ages and what can happen if those needs aren't met, Rathbun said.

"Some people can get away with only five and a half to six hours of sleep a night; some need nine hours to function," he said. "Everyone is different, which makes it difficult for parents to determine how much each child needs."

Rathbun said elementary school-age children need the most sleep and if they don't get it, they can develop concentration problems and become irritable and distracted. Getting enough sleep is especially tough at back-to-school time, since children may have been getting up and going to bed later during the summer. Rathbun suggests planning for back to school by having children get back into the school-time sleep routine a couple of weeks before classes actually begin.

"Give yourself a period of adjustment," he said. "You'll have the tendency to feel tired for a couple of weeks until your circadian rhythm gets adjusted."

In adolescents, impulsive and reckless behavior is increased with sleep deprivation, Rathbun said. This is the age when people actually need the most sleep -- and most teenagers' parents are in their 40s, which is when people need the least amount of sleep.

"This can be problematic," Rathbun said. If parents are concerned about their teenagers sleeping into the afternoon hours on weekends and during vacations periods, Rathbun said the worst thing they can do is "yell and scream" about it.

"Instead, sit down and design a plan to both meet responsibilities and get enough sleep," he said.

But it's when teenagers become college students that sleep can really become a problem.

"When they leave the parental home, patterns change," Rathbun said. "You're immediately responsible for yourself."

Living in residence halls with many other people, some of whom have sleep patterns that do not match a student's own, can make it difficult to get enough sleep, he said. Many other things inhibit good sleep patterns in college, such as social life, academic life and work.

"This atmosphere really lends itself to sleep problems," Rathbun said.

Lack of sleep in college-age students can result in lack of concentration -- students may find themselves reading the same page over and over as their mind wanders. The tendency for risk-taking behavior also increases. And although college-age students will most likely not experience physical problems due to a lack of sleep, their immune system may be a little lower. And, Rathbun said, if a student builds up a sleep deficit, he or she must pay it off at some time.

"There are times when you will build up a sleep deficit, such as during finals week," Rathbun said. "But one week per year isn't going to hurt. If you're smart enough to know you have to pay off the sleep deficit, it won't be too serious."

The problem starts when students drag out their sleep deprivation week after week. Those with long-term sleep deprivation are at a greater risk for depression and anxiety, Rathbun said. And those with severe problems could even begin thinking about suicide.

Rathbun suggests developing a plan to pay off sleep deficits for those who have gone for too long in a bad pattern. The worst thing to do is to get in a habit of taking over-the-counter medications or a few drinks to aid in getting to sleep or taking medications to help stay awake. These things disrupt normal sleep patterns and can be habit forming, he said.

"There's a big difference between once and many times," Rathbun said about using sleep aids. If students feel they need medication for more than a week, he recommends seeing a doctor who can prescribe and monitor medication. Those experiencing insomnia from breaking their sleep pattern or other causes also need to see a professional, he said.

Although college students are typically able to bounce back from sleep deficits, they may not be as resilient when they enter the "real world" and have a more rigid schedule, Rathbun said. Physiological problems from sleep deprivation can be greater as a person ages. That's why he emphasizes college students get in a normal sleeping and waking routine, even if their schedule doesn't dictate it.

"College students begin to set patterns for adult life," Rathbun said. "The problems from sleep deprivation don't always occur right away in college, but the habits do."

Summer 2005