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Sleep: A Pre-med’s Worst Enemy or Best Friend?

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About Julia

Julia grew up in Northern Virginia and graduated with high distinction from the University of Virginia with Bachelors degrees in biology and music. She plans to attend medical school in 2019. She has traveled abroad to eight countries in Europe, including France, Germany, and the Czech Republic. As a member of the Atlantis team, Julia enjoys helping other pre-med students discover a love for medicine and grow in their understanding of the field.

Does this cycle of weariness sound familiar?

You’re very busy, we know. Between your course work, studying for the MCAT or prepping your AMCAS personal statement, and finding time to volunteer, you’re spent—physically, mentally, and emotionally. You are practically crawling to your bed every night, but when your alarm goes off in the morning you’re SURE it hasn’t been more than an hour since you drifted off.

According to the Sleep Foundation, adults between 18 and 25 years of age require seven to nine hours of sleep in order to function properly. Seven to nine.

How many of hours of sleep are you getting? My guess is it’s not seven to nine hours.

It does seem like there are some people in this world who don’t need that much sleep in order to thrive. We all have that one friend who can survive on only four hours of sleep every night. Crazy people. But how many hours of sleep do we actually need, and for all you pre-med students out there, how are you supposed to do well in school, have a social life, AND get a full night’s sleep?

Does sleep training work?

Let’s start by consulting the experts. According to Jim Horne, a neuroscientist at Loughborough University, our bodies can get by on a little less than the typical seven to nine hours. He argues that, if we train our bodies correctly, we can actually cut back our required amount of sleep to six hours. How do you train yourself to sleep less? Horne says that the most effective way to pare down your sleep schedule to six hours is to shave back twenty minutes of sleep each week until you reach the desired number of hours.

For example, if you typically go to bed at 11 pm and wake up at 8 am, you’re averaging nine hours of sleep a night. If you want to reduce that number to six hours, the best way to do so is to shave back those three extra hours of sleep over the course of six weeks. During the first week, move your bedtime forward to 11:20 pm. The week after, go to bed at 11:40. The third week, go to bed at midnight. Follow this pattern, either by going to bed later or getting up earlier, until you reach six hours of sleep.

What’s the key to succeeding at this method? Horne says that, in order for this method to work, you will need to set your alarm for the same time every morning. Every morning. Even on the weekends? You betcha. As hard as that sounds, keeping your sleep schedule consistent will help you enormously as you develop a pattern to stay well-rested and productive.

The “Rest” of the Story

Is this method of regularized sleep-deprivation actually effective, or are we just fooling our bodies into thinking they need less sleep?

On the other side of the argument is Dr. Sigrid Veasey, a member of the faculty at the UPenn Perelman School of Medicine. According to Dr. Veasey, not only might it be damaging to sleep less than 7-9 hours, it might also be impossible. There is no way that we can train ourselves to sleep for less time than our bodies require, she says, and there’s one foolproof way to find out how many hours that really is: “…once you catch up on lost sleep and are not sleep deprived, the amount you end up sleeping is a good measure of how much you need every night.” So maybe the best way to find out how much sleep you need is to go on vacation, rest up completely, then observe how many hours your body naturally needs. Sleeping for any fewer hours than this might be damaging to your health.

All of this is to say that if your body is telling you that you need more than six hours, you should listen. If, on the other hand, you can train yourself to sleep less than seven hours, and you don’t feel like your health and mental abilities are compromised, you might be one of the more fortunate “short sleepers” who require less sleep to succeed in life.

But then there’s always caffeine…

As you’ve been reading this blog post about sleep and fatigue, you may have noticed a rather glaring omission…

As a pre-med student and a future doctor, you probably already are an expert when it comes to coffee consumption. So where in this conversation about sleep does caffeine come into play? Is it okay for you to binge-drink that ground goodness? Or does caffeine consumption actually exacerbate your inability to get a good night’s sleep?

Well, the good news is that according to research published in the last several years, some potential benefits of coffee include: fighting diabetes and heart disease, increasing mental acuity and alertness, and prolonging life span. Think that sounds too good to be true? Yeah, so does the MayoClinic.

In 2014, the medical practice and research group published research that indicated potential deleterious effects of caffeine on cholesterol. However, the research suggests that the negative consequences of caffeine on cholesterol may be negligible. Additionally, caffeine may be responsible for an increase in heart disease among a small population of individuals who are deficient in their ability to metabolize caffeine. Patients with a particular genetic mutation that doesn’t allow for the efficient breakdown of caffeine may be affected negatively by more than two cups of coffee or tea per day.

There is also evidence to suggest that there is a tradeoff between the benefits of caffeine and the havoc it may wreak on your regular sleep schedule. Research indicates that ingesting caffeine as many as six hours before bedtime can cause a significant decrease in the quality of your sleep.

“Research indicates that ingesting caffeine as many as six hours before bedtime can cause a significant decrease in the quality of your sleep.”


How does all of this information apply to your life? As a busy pre-med student, I’m sure you are no stranger to sleep deprivation. It may be tempting to sacrifice sleep in order to fit in a few more hours of cramming. For some of you, this pattern of pulling all-nighters and making up for that lost sleep on the weekends is a way of life. However, it may be a good idea to re-evaluate your sleep patterns and attempt to establish for yourself a more healthy pattern of rest. Whether it’s extending the number of hours you sleep during the week or tying naps into your daily schedule, the habits you form as a student in college will no doubt help you avoid the “fatigue trap” later in medical school.

Farewell, my exhausted pre-med readers. And sweet dreams.

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Cover of the Medical School Admissions Guide.
Two Atlantis alumni admitted to Top 5 MD programs wrote our widely read medical school admissions guidebook — download yours.