College students turning to caffeine to fight sleep deprivation

Published: Aug. 18, 2023 at 7:34 AM CDT
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the average adult needs at least seven hours of sleep a night. But studies show that college students only get about six.

That may not sound like a big difference to some. However, as we head into a new school year, Dr. David Edwards, in Family Medicine at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, says not getting the sleep you need can be linked to poor grades among other problems. He says, “Sleep deprivation is associated with mood changes. It’s associated with decreased attention, decreased ability to concentrate, and sadly, it can even affect the student’s GPA.”

So where do college students typically turn for help when they’re sleepy but need to study? Caffeine.

Dr. Edwards says caffeine is tricky. “Caffeine does help. It helps maintain focus and attention. It is relatively safe when used in standard doses. For example, one to two cups of coffee or tea, we do begin to worry when people are getting excessive doses of caffeine through energy drinks, or through pre- workout supplements.” On the other hand, he says too much caffeine can lead to chest pain, racing of the heart, and anxiety. If a student is already feeling some anxiety over school and other issues, caffeine could really compound the problem.

Adding to the problem are so-called ‘study drugs’. Those are prescription stimulants like adderal or ritalin used without a prescription to boost energy and concentration. A recent college prescription drug study indicates one in seven college or post graduate students uses study drugs. Dr. Edwards adds, “Whether that’s to get high, whether that’s to maintain focus and study, or prepare for finals. That’s really a more dangerous category. We worry about addiction, and we worry about even fatalities, particularly when combined with alcohol or other drugs.”

Mixing study drugs with caffeine, he says, is essentially like taking speed especially since caffeine has a long half-life. That means it lingers in the body, cutting down on sleep time.

So what’s the answer? Particularly for students who need to maintain focus?

He says it starts with limiting caffeine intake to a certain part of the day. “We wouldn’t want people drinking caffeine or taking caffeine supplements in the evening, because it’ll affect their ability to sleep that night. It’s a trifecta. It’s healthy eating. It’s exercising consistently and it’s getting enough sleep.”