Stress, stimulants may form a dangerous combo

Junior Mary Anderson uses caffeine to aid in her studying at Pius XII Memorial Library. Kelly Hinderberger / Associate Photo Editor

Junior Mary Anderson uses caffeine to aid in her studying at Pius XII Memorial Library. Kelly Hinderberger / Associate Photo Editor

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As the semester races to an inescapable deadline, students of higher education will begin to feel the stress mounting. That stress will subsequently impact the way stimulants, such as caffeine and prescription medication, are used to deal with the problem of procrastination.

Junior Mary Anderson uses caffeine to aid in her studying at Pius XII Memorial Library. Kelly Hinderberger / Associate Photo Editor

“I cannot get through classes without the assistance of caffeine,” freshman Tim Cornelius, a business management and American studies major, said.

The University News conducted a poll of 170 students from freshmen to graduate students. They were asked about their stress levels and how they dealt with stress on a daily basis, as well as during exams.

According to the survey, 48 percent reported that their stress is either overwhelming or is suffered daily.

Though caffeine is a regularly used substance on college campuses to help treat sleepiness or general fatigue, there are negative side effects that hinge on the degree of usage.

The University News survey results showed 70 percent of respondents reporting that they use caffeine from a few times a week up to multiple times daily.

Anthony J. Scalzo, professor and Director of the Division of Toxicology at SLU and the medical director at the Missouri Poison Center, said that excessive caffiene intake can produce dependency, and in turn, withdrawal symptoms such as migraine headaches.

“It depends on the dose, but the problem, currently, is that caffeine is taken in such concentrated doses that it makes it difficult to know one’s limit,” Scalzo said. “Caffeine is not classically addictive, like street drugs, but it gets to the point where people feel like they have to use it in order to function.”

Scalzo said that in addition to migraines, caffeine can set off a number of other side-effects, such as nausea, dehydration, feeling jittery and the inability to fall asleep or settle down.

Scalzo said the other danger is that when students are high on caffeine, they are unable to fall asleep at bedtime. Students might turn to over-the-counter or prescription sedatives to calm them down or to fall asleep, which, oftentimes, can be unpredictable.

Along with caffeine, a stimulant that has become more prevalent among college campuses is the use of prescription medication, such as Adderall and Ritalin, without a doctor’s approval. These drugs are known as amphetamines and methylphenidates. They are mainly used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

The University News survey showed that 64 percent of respondents reported that they have never used prescription stimulants and never will. The rest of the respondents reported having at least tried using it semi-regularly, for tests and exams.

According to Dr. Miggie Greenberg, assistant professor of psychiatry, about 5 percent of adults are diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, but the market is full of stimulants. She said that stimulants are over-prescribed in certain cases and under-prescribed in others, depending on the socioeconomic class of the patient.

“Sometimes students that come from very highly competitive families have unreasonable expectations placed on them to succeed at a certain level. If they do not reach that level somehow, it is determined that one must have a learning disability,” Greenberg said.

The Journal of American College Health recently did a study of 42 students in a southern California university that looked into the characteristics of college students with ADHD who misused their medications, one of the only prescription-stimulant misuse surveys to date.

The results of the study showed that 45 percent of participants reported misuse of the medication; 62.8 percent reported taking a higher dose than recommended, and 48.8 percent reported either giving or selling their medication to others.

“I have been on this drug since grade school,” an anonymous student said. “I would highly discourage use unless you absolutely need it because I don’t like it, and I don’t like myself when I am on it.”

Greenberg said disabilities like ADD and ADHD most often show up during college-age years because many students have the ability to get through high school without committing much time to studying. When students make the jump to higher education, they are placed in a highly selective group of the population, which breeds competition and naturally leads to longer study hours.

Greenberg said many of the symptoms of ADD or ADHD can be mistaken for general human failure. “Humans were not meant to study 20 hours a day,” Greenberg said.

According to Greenberg and Scalzo, the list of negatives associated with unprescribed stimulant use is long and includes the breaching of ethical, moral and physical boundaries.

“Frankly, I believe unprescribed stimulant use is on the same level, ethically, as cheating,” Greenberg said.

On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most dangerous, Scalzo said that he would place unprescribed stimulant use at an 8, in terms of potential risk to the body.

“So many things are unknown when someone uses prescription medication without a doctor’s approval. Number one is that you do not know what you are taking for sure,” Scalzo said. “People do not know how their bodies will metabolize different kinds of medication and could easily be unaware of any potential heart problems, but those veiled problems can often show themselves for the first time in a negative way when taking this medication.”

According to the UNews survey, a full 54 percent know about the potential negative consequences and chose not to use it.

As well as the ethical and physical negative impacts of stimulants, there are also legal consequences for using and distributing this drug without a doctor’s approval.

According to Captain Ken Hornak, director of field operations for the Department of Public Safety and Security Services, there are two ways to deal with this issue. Minor infractions are dealt with by the University’s judicial affairs, while major infractions are reported to the St. Louis Police Department (STLPD).

“Distribution of this type of drug would classify as a major offense and would be reported to STLPD immediately,” he said. “This issue is dealt with on a case-to-case basis, though.”

According to Raman Malhotra, assistant professor in the Department of Neurology & Psychiatry at SLU School of Medicine and co-director of SLU’s Sleep Disorder Center, regular sleep is crucial to academic success and can not be substituted for with stimulants.

“Many of the symptoms that students try to combat with Ritalin, Adderall and caffeine are symptoms of sleep deprivation,” Malhotra said. “Studies show that sleep equals greater productivity in the classroom.”

Malhotra said that sleep is a time for the body to recuperate as well as a time for the brain to consolidate memories. Not enough sleep can lead to, among other things, a short temper, depression and anxiousness.

“Part of the reason people feel they need to take medicine to settle down or to focus is because they are sleep deprived,” Malhotra said. “They are forcing their body to stay awake, so they will inevitably focus on many different things other than the sleep that they require.”

In an ideal world, Malhotra said that students need to stick to a schedule when they sleep because the body likes repetition. The body does not recognize the difference between a Friday night or a Tuesday night.

“The ideal way to study without stimulants is to study at night and then calm down before bedtime. Sleep 7-9 hours, and they will operate with higher levels of concentration, brain activity and alertness,” Malhotra said.