I said that accursed word, “sleep.” When I was first adjusting to college life, I had no problem getting the right amount of sleep. Of course this depended on my workload, but on average I would get around seven to eight hours per night. As classes got harder, friends got closer, and extra curriculars got busier, this reduced to five to six, and I was always in a state of sleep debt. Sleep debt is that feeling of lightheadedness, tiredness, and dizziness that occurs when you do not get your optimal number of hours per night. However, missing 2 hours before a big project is due is not repaid by sleeping an extra two hours the next night, the debt “gains interest.” (For more on this phenomena, you can read http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-can-you-catch-up-on-sleep/)
This being said, when we are in a sleep debt, we are not able to perform at our peak. While this means losing time for our classes, or not being able to pursue our leisurely interests, our pre-med buzzers should be on high alert. We cannot prove to medical schools nor to ourselves that we can be effective doctors if we cannot perform at our peak in college. We need sleep. Most of us need more than we think we do. Adults need around seven to eight hours of sleep per night to function at their peaks. This is not an average, by the way. Sleeping five to six hours a night for a week and then sleeping in on the weekends lulls us into the false pretense that we are getting enough sleep, but really, we are just prolonging our poor performance.
Well, why don’t you sleep more? Here’s the question you need to ask yourself. Is your lack of sleep because “you have too much work” or “your roommates keep you up at night” or “you don’t really need that much sleep”?
I can debunk most if not all of these with a little change of perspective.
You have too much work/You really don’t need that much sleep:
If you are pre-med, yes. You have a lot of work. However, our classes are designed so that we are spending most of our time on these classes. If you are procrastinating indulgently, then certainly you won’t enough sleep or time to focus on your classes. This is a personal opinion of mine, but I know that many share it and sometimes we lose sight of this: We have come here to get an education, degree, and opportunities. If anything in college that is (either by your choice or externally) hindering your ability to achieve any of these things, you’re doing college wrong. Your goal should not be to manage your time effectively in order to maximize the parties you go to, it should be to maximize your time so that you have enough to work hard and play hard.
Also, I understand that everyone needs a different amount of sleep. That’s part of genetics, our circadian clocks, and what we have been trained to do. However, sleeping for five to six hours, and then consistently napping and oversleeping during weekends is not performing at your best. This continues and perpetuates your sleep debt. This goes back to not having the energy to focus on your activities, and if choosing to sleep for less than what you really need, then you are not giving yourself a proper chance to stay awake in classes and use your free time properly. Let’s use this scenario. If you say you need five to six hours a day (but really need eight, and then oversleep on weekends/ take naps during the day), then those naps are just you trying to pay back your sleep debt. However, sleeping an appropriate amount per day will allow you to free up that “nap time” slot as well as the “sleeping in” slot of your schedule, and will allow you to be more productive and more successful.
Your roommates keep you up at night:
This is an extrinsic source of sleep debt, and if you have inconsiderate or uncompatible roommates then this is really something you need to talk with them about. However, many people simply do not prioritize their sleep hygiene. What is that? Well, it’s not playing Angry Birds on your phone in bed while you’re trying to sleep. It’s not eating a Goody’s Burrito at 12AM when you have to sleep by 1. And it’s not doing homework in bed. There are more rules for this (of course in a more concise and formal fashion) that can be found here: http://sleepfoundation.org/ask-the-expert/sleep-hygiene.
All of these things detract from your ability to sleep. Unfortunately I do not have enough background in circadian biology to give you explanations for each of them, but I do know an explanation for screens/bright light. It has been found that blue light actually suppresses melatonin production (which is our bodies chemical to induce sleep)! Read more here: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Health_Letter/2012/May/blue-light-has-a-dark-side/