sleep in medical school (Your questions answered)

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Med school is said to be a relatively tough study program. Along with it comes all kinds of rumors about medical students never getting enough sleep due to the heavy workloads.

The truth is that you can always get enough sleep no matter how busy it gets. It is usually just a matter of self-discipline and prioritizing getting enough sleep.

In this article, we explore how many medical students sleep, why it is important, and the potential consequences of not getting enough sleep as a medical student.

How many hours should medical students sleep?

This topic has been debated back and forth. Numerous studies have tried to pinpoint how many hours one should sleep to function optimally.

According to the national sleep foundation, it is recommended that adults get about 7-9 hours of sleep every night. They also recommend that the average amount of sleep should be higher in younger individuals.

Newborns should sleep the most, ranging between 16-18 hours/day before it decreases with age. These recommendations have shaped the general consensus on the average amount a person should get according to their age, as shown in the table below:

Newborn to 3 months old12-18 hours
4 – 11 months old11-17 hours
1-2 years old10-15 hours
3-5 years old9-13 hours
6-13 years old8-11 hours
14-17 years old8-10 hours
Young adults (18-25 years old)7-9 hours
Adults (26-64 years old)6-9 hours
Older adults (65+)6-8 hours

Most medical students will fall into the category of young adults or adults. This means you should try to get between 6-9 hours of sleep every night.

This is something that you should be able to get as a medical student no matter how busy you might feel. Exchanging sleep for a few extra hours of study time won’t help you down the road.

How many hours do medical students sleep?

Although they might share a few traits, the individuals attending med school are as diverse as the general population. This is especially true when it comes to sleep patterns.

Also, some medical students have a tendency to brag about how little they sleep, as if it’s an indicator of how much and hard they study.

The truth is that you have medical students who consistently clocking in 8 hours of sleep every night. You also have those who will tell you that they only sleep 3 hours.

After asking 126 medical students across several forums etc. I found the average medical student to get around 6-7 hours of sleep per night.

There is, however, a pretty consistent, seasonal decline in the amount of sleep hours medical students get around the time of exams.

This is something a lot of students highlighted when I did my research. This seasonal drop tends to affect even the most self-disciplined student.

In addition, once you start clinical rotations, specialties, where you are on call (like IM and most surgical specialties, but especially OB), have a tendency to leave student sleep deprived.

Why is sleep important for medical students?

Sleep is as vital as food for survival. This has been demonstrated in animal studies that showed that death due to extensive sleep deprivation can occur in a timeframe similar to death due to starvation.⁽²⁾

Also, any psychiatrist can tell you just how damaging insomnia can be for one’s mental health. Luckily, most of us won’t suffer from insomnia, and most are able to shake off a night of occasional lack of sleep.

However, chronic lack of sleep has the potential to affect your mental and physical health in more ways than you think.

While we don’t have the exact answer as to why we sleep. It is not simply a time during which the body and brain shut down to rest.

It is more reasonable to think of it as scheduled maintenance where the body and brain overhaul bodily systems in an effort to enable the system to run at its maximum capacity.⁽³⁾

Skipping a few hours of this scheduled maintenance a few days in a row might not seem as much. You might also think that you can make up for it by clocking in a few more hours of sleep on the weekend.

The truth is that it might not be that easy. If one starts to consistently cut down on one’s sleeping time, you put yourself at risk of suffering the mental and physical consequences of sleep deprivation which in turn will have a negative impact on you as a medical student.

Medical students and sleep deprivation

While the consequences of sleep deprivation are the same in most individuals, it can severely affect a medical students ability to do well in his/her studies.

What is sleep deprivation?

Sleep deprivation is simply just another term for not getting enough sleep. It is recognized as a condition that can affect both physical and mental health.

While we can differentiate between acute and chronic sleep deprivation, the chronic type is the one most associated with negative symptoms in your daily life. Common symptoms of sleep deprivation include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Moodiness
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Depressed mood
  • Difficulty learning new concepts
  • Forgetfulness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lack of motivation
  • Increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings and
  • Reduced sex drive

As you can see, a lack of sleep can not only make you a lousy student but also turn you into an unmotivated, irritable person as well as a poor partner prone to weight gain.

For those of you who have studied, psychiatry will recognize that many of these symptoms are also associated with various mental disorders.

In fact, Students suffering from a simple sleep disorder are more prone to develop more severe sleep disorders such as insomnia.

This can in turn result in the development of severe mental health problems such as chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, and overall lower quality of life. ⁽⁴⁾

Causes of sleep deprivation among medical students

Like students in general, medical students are prone to periods of sleep deprivation.

This is most often self-inflicted and self-limiting. However, for some students, sleep deprivation can become a problem that can affect their academic performance, daily life, and overall quality of life.

There are many things that can cause a student to have a lack of sleep. Most are self-inflicted and includes: Parties and other social events, as well asLate night studying du to the need to binge study

There are, however, some stressors that can have a negative impact on a student’s sleep pattern.

First of all, a freshman’s sleep can be affected by the anxiety and worry of leaving home and becoming independent. Leaving behind a safe and known environment and friends with the unknown and uncertain can be stressful and lead to problems sleeping.

There are various chronic stressors in a student’s life. These include the likes of a constant irregularity in routines, side jobs, and exam periods.

These stressors can persist throughout a whole semester or year and greatly affects a student’s quality of sleep. ⁽⁵⁾

Sleep disorders among medical students

As mentioned, students with sleep deprivation are more prone to develop severe sleep disorders such as insomnia.

While there is no concrete evidence to support the fact. It is said that medical students are prone to get less sleep. This will in turn leave them more prone to develop sleep disorders.

Although there is nothing specific for medical students. General studies have estimated that up to 60% of all college students suffer from poor quality of sleep.

Out of these, 27% have at least 1 risk factor for developing a sleeping disorder. From these, over 7% meet all criteria of an insomnia disorder. ⁽⁶⁾

There is no reason to freak out just yet. The vast majority of students and med-students will be just fine.

What it does tell you though, is that one should try to be somewhat disciplined when it comes to getting enough sleep as a student. it sure won’t hurt your academic prospects.

Benefits of adequate sleep for a student

As stated earlier, inadequate sleep affects both your physical and mental health in a negative way. While getting adequate amounts of sleep will consequently affect it in a positive way.

The benefits of being well-rested and getting enough sleep do not come isolated. It improves both your physical and mental health which are largely dependent on each other.

As a student, the most beneficial reward comes in the form of mental health. A well-rested brain enhances your ability to learn new concepts in addition to improving concentration and motivation.

Both these benefits can prove important to your academic performance. In fact, studies have suggested that medical students who sleep well do better academically. ⁽⁷⁾

Are you sleep deprived?

Like any other disease or disorder, the most important step to make in order to better yourself is to acknowledge that you have a problem. In order to do so, one must get a sense of whether one is sleep-deprived or not.

A quick and simple way to do this is to answer honestly the following short questionnaire from the national sleep foundation.

  1. In the past two weeks, have you unintentionally fallen asleep during the day?
    • 0-1 times (0)
    • More than 2 times (1)
  2. Have you unintentionally fallen asleep in a public place within the past two weeks?
    • 0-1 times (0)
    • More than 2 times (1)
  3. Have you nodded off or fallen asleep while behind the wheel of a car in the past two weeks?
    • Never (0)
    • Once or more (1)
  4. How many days in the past two weeks did you get the sleep you need to feel your best the following day?
    • Most or almost every day (0)
    • Less than half of the time (1)
  5. Have friends, family, or coworkers told you that you look sleepy in the past two weeks?
    • Yes (1)
    • No (0)
  6. Have you felt so sleepy that you required a nap during the past two weeks?
    • No (0)
    • Yes (1)

If your score is between 0-2 you are most likely well-rested. if you score 3 or 4 you have a tendency for daytime sleepiness, and you should consider taking steps to improve your sleep. If you score 5 or 6 you need to improve your sleep as you most likely suffer from sleep deprivation which can affect your daily mental and physical health.

0-2Most likely well-rested
3-4A tendency for daytime sleepiness, consider taking steps to improve your sleep
5-6Likely suffering from sleep deprivation, important to take steps to improve your sleep

Tips to improve sleep

After acknowledging the problem, you should try to identify the underlying problem in an effort cope with it.

The underlying cause can differ between individuals, which means that there is no silver bullet that works for everyone. However, there are a few general tips that also touch on a few of the most common causes. This include:

Improve your Self-discipline

Most often than not, sleep deprivation is at least partly self-induced. TV, games, other interests can keep you up when should go to bed. Therefore, becoming a little more strict with ones sleep need can go a long way to improving your sleep.

Put your cell phone away

It is easy to check a few posts, answer a text, or read some news on your phone after turning the light off. Try to avoid it, as the light from your phone will prevent you from getting sleepy.

Use Audio

If you are having a hard time falling asleep, you can try to listen to some calming music or nature sounds. Alternatively, you can try to listen to a podcast as you go to bed.

Although not for everyone, you might find it helpful, but make sure to turn the volume down so you don’t hurt your ears.

Work out

Working out is the closest you get to a magic pill for improving just about anything about yourself. Not only do you get into better shape, but you can also improve your mental health, and help you sleep better.

The benefits are so great that you should do it whether you are having problems with your sleeping pattern or not.

Avoid late night caffeine

Many people benefit for caffeine to make them them feel more awake and alert. If you are one of them, avoid it when it’s time to get some sleep.

Avoid daytime napping

Daytime napping can reduce your need for sleep. This makes it more difficult for you to fall asleep in the evening.

Try to avoid it in order to maintain a more regular and healthy sleep-wake cycle. This, in turn, tends to improve your overall quality of sleep.

Improve your environment (bedroom = sleep, comfy, temp)

Some people can sleep just about anywhere. Others are a bit more sensitive to their surroundings.

Depending on which one you are, try to make the bedroom and the bed your ultimate sleep station. This means that the bed is strictly for sleeping only, that means no studying in bed.

Also, get some comfy pillows and sheets, and make sure that you have curtains or blinds to prevent light from keeping you awake. Simply create an environment that offers you the best chance to get the sleep you need.