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Fascinating (Circadian) Rhythm: Undergraduates learn about opportunities in research

Posted: Aug. 5, 2015

Social media can be a great way for homesick college students to feel connected. But staying connected with friends and family back home through Instagram, Facebook or texts comes at a price, depending on what time of day individuals log on, according to sleep experts.

Now new research conducted by two University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing undergraduates is looking into how social media might positively affect sleep habits, or at least provide users with important information about the effects of poor sleep habits on their daily performance. These effects include having trouble paying attention and taking longer to complete tasks.

Left to Right: Courtney Kercher, Dr. Patricia Carter and Dayna Gettel
attended the Sleep 2015 international conference in Seattle

That’s because humans have an internal circadian biological clock that regulates the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day, explained Patricia Carter, PhD, RN, CNS and a mentor in the School of Nursing honors program. These circadian rhythms are produced by natural factors within the body but are also affected by signals from the environment. Light is the main cue influencing circadian rhythms, turning on or turning off genes that control the body’s internal clock.

Understanding that staring at a glowing screen just before bedtime can keep many students from getting a good night’s sleep and how that adversely affects this population, Courtney Kercher and Dayna Gettel, both seniors in the School of Nursing’s honors program, wanted to find out if social media might become part of the arsenal against sleeplessness.

“We prepared a survey asking about social media usage and sleep habits, and from that we found that students are at least marginally impaired by poor quality of sleep; so it is an issue,” Courtney said. “We were also curious about where students go for health information and wanted to know if social media would make a good platform for providing information about sleep health.”

“We found that students were surprised to learn that poor sleep affects their psychological, physiological and academic performance,” Dayna said. “Overall, the majority of responders said they think it’s very important to learn about sleep effects and how it affects their ability to perform well in college.”

Courtney and Dayna recently traveled with Dr. Carter, to Seattle, Wash., for SLEEP 2015, a joint international meeting of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society. There they joined thousands of health care providers and researchers presenting their findings on sleep.

Nursing is the element that focuses on the application of this science, especially within a naturalistic setting, according to Dr. Carter.

“Most of the research at the conference are by large laboratories doing very controlled studies, which are good, but they don’t apply to real life,” she said. “Nursing bridges that gap from lab to real life, so when these scientists saw what Courtney and Dayna were presenting and how it can make a positive impact on people, they were very excited and interested.”

Sleep is an area that is gaining momentum, Dr. Carter explained. “As scientists, we are just beginning to understand the connections between quantity and quality of sleep and how that translates to quality of life and our ability to function in every day life. Part of my job as a researcher is to better articulate that relationship. As an educator, my job is to light a spark in my students in the honors program and get them thinking how their projects might lead to the development of an intervention that could make a difference in someone’s life.”

One way to make a difference might be through helping people understand that it’s within their power to change the quality of their sleep. And that one bad night does not a bad sleeper make.

“Little things people do can have a big impact on their sleep, such as limiting caffeine to the first part of the day, reducing social media usage at bedtime, relaxing by deep breathing. But above all, don’t worry if you happen to have a bad night,” Dr. Carter said. “A sleepless night doesn’t mean you have a sleep problem. If that happens, your chances of getting a good night’s sleep the next night is even greater.”

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