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Balancing school credit hours and 40 winks

a technician has her back to the camera as she reviews a computer screen with line charts detailing a person’s heart rate, brain waves, and other parameters.
By Christopher Austin

Not only are students at the Uniformed Services University (USU) busy working full time on their academics, but many are also balancing military obligations on top of responsibilities at home. This can leave little to no time for sleep, which can have a significant impact on mental and physical health – but doctors here suggest there are ways to help find a balance in order to maintain adequate sleep and a healthy lifestyle.

“[People who don’t get enough sleep] can have sleep-related breathing disorders, like sleep apnea, that can exacerbate blood pressure and lead to weight gain,” said Army Col. (Dr.) Jamie Grimes, the chair of the Department of Neurology at USU. “It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because you gain weight, which can lead to sleep complications, which can lead to more health and sleep issues.”

For students, staying up late to study usually means missing out on sleep, but this can be detrimental to success on assignments because exhaustion can make it difficult to solidify memories and knowledge – in other words not being able to remember what it was they were studying.  It is possible to balance a busy schedule and get a regular night’s rest, though, but it can take some work.

a technician has her back to the camera as she reviews a computer screen with line charts detailing a person’s heart rate, brain waves, and other parameters.
A technician reviews the data collected during a patient’s sleep study at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. This data can help doctors determine what issus patients have when sleeping by recording muscle impulses, pulse, brain waves, and more. (Photo by Army Col. William Kelly)

“What’s really key is the length of sleep and the degree of sleep. You need to have a quiet place where you can recover and not be interrupted, buffered from events going on while you’re sleeping,” said Grimes.

Depth of sleep is best achieved when a person goes to sleep as their circadian rhythm is winding down. This is the body’s natural cycle of being awake and asleep, and it’s during this time, as it’s winding down, when the body is able to naturally repair the mechanisms that help you to feel awake and energetic. Some might also try napping, and while a quick siesta can make you feel more awake, it won’t really replace the extended, uninterrupted amount of rest that is recommended for good health.

There are also some health issues that can prevent a person from achieving a high-degree of quality sleep, such as sleep apnea. In these instances, it’s recommended that individuals have a sleep study performed to determine the cause and possible treatments.

Getting less than the recommended hours of sleep has also been connected with increased levels of amyloid beta, a protein in the brain that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease, according to Navy Ensign Catherine Woodard, a second-year student in USU’s F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine who served as vice president of the Neurology Student Interest Group during her first year.

“I am concerned about how a lack of sleep can affect military service members and my future patients,” Woodard said. “In hospitals, it has been found that sleep deprivation can increase incidence of delirium in hospitalized patients, especially older patients.”

Multiple brain, heart and muscle sensors rest next to one another by a bed.
Sensors that detect brain waves, pulse, and subtle muscle movements are all hooked up to a patient during their sleep study to give doctors a picture of what their body is going through during sleep, and what might be impeding a full rest. (Photo by Army Col. William Kelly)

According to the National Sleep Foundation, young adults ranging between 18 and 25 years of age should get between seven and nine hours of sleep a day to be at their optimum level of alertness, attention and performance, but this can vary between individuals. Anyone who’s not getting enough sleep could end up with impaired judgment and awareness – in some cases, sleep deprivation can be right on par with being intoxicated. 

Grimes said she learned to balance family and career, but not without a few bumps, often waking up at odd hours to check on her firstborn son whenever she heard a noise in the night during her early years in medical school. She said she remembers being drowsy in those early days and not able to pay full attention to her studies. After raising four now-adult children, she has found a way to manage balancing sleep and work.

This is something that Woodard is also working out.

“I know in order to be happy and able to contribute to class I need to function properly, so I have to prioritize sleep, but I also prioritize time with my family, so it leaves me with a little bit less time to do my academics than it would other students,” said Woodard. “The way I manage it is that I try to be more efficient with my time at the university and try to structure my days so I spend my time studying here and when I go home I’m a parent and spend time with my family … It’s important to have a routine for the whole family. My kids have to have a regular bedtime, and because they have a regular bedtime, I get to have a regular bedtime.”