Ehab Badran

Sleep Less, Achieve More: Myth or Reality ?

Do we really need eight hours of sleep?

As doctors in training, we’re always up against the clock, juggling studies and exams alongside career advancement.

It’s a bit easier for medical students, without the full weight of job responsibilities and family life.

But once we become doctors, the stakes are higher – our careers and knowledge growth depend on further studies and passing more exams.

With just 24 hours in a day, finding time for everything is tough. A doctor’s workday can take up a good chunk of time, often stretching into long shifts and night duties.

So, how do we squeeze in effective study time? I toyed with the idea of cutting down sleep to a mere four hours a night.

The goal? Free up more hours for studying, spending time with family, and personal pursuits. This approach hinges on viewing sleep as somewhat of a ‘time thief’ – a period of doing nothing when we could be productive.

I delved into various studies, research, and expert talks about sleep, aiming to understand if surviving on four hours of sleep could free up more time for other activities, such as studying.

👉Here’s what I discovered:

The story of Dr. William Stewart Halsted

Dr Halsted, a pioneering American surgeon, offers a poignant real-world illustration of the impact of sleep on learning and cognitive function.

Dr. Halsted, who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was known for his rigorous work ethic and his revolutionary contributions to surgical procedures.

However, his approach to work and study was extreme, often involving long hours with minimal rest.

As detailed in various historical accounts, Dr. Halsted was notorious for his demanding surgical schedules and his expectation that his residents and students follow a similarly strenuous routine.

This often meant that both he and his team were working under significant sleep deprivation. Initially, this approach seemed to yield results, with Halsted and his team making groundbreaking advancements in surgery.

However, over time, the effects of chronic sleep deprivation became evident. Halsted himself suffered from periods of diminished cognitive function, which, according to some accounts, affected his ability to perform surgeries and teach effectively.

His concentration and memory were compromised, and in some instances, his judgment was called into question.

This historical example aligns with the findings of the study published in the Journal of Sleep Research. Halsted’s experience serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the long-term consequences of sacrificing sleep for work and study.

It underscores the study’s conclusion that adequate sleep is not just a physical necessity but a critical component of effective learning and professional competence, particularly in fields as demanding as medicine.

Dr. Halsted’s story, though set in a different era, resonates with the challenges faced by medical professionals today, reinforcing the timeless importance of balancing sleep with the rigorous demands of medical practice and study.

The Myth of the Four-Hour Sleep Cycle

Dr. Charles Czeisler from Harvard Medical School explains that while some people claim to function effectively on minimal sleep, it’s a myth for the vast majority.

Our bodies typically require between 7 to 9 hours of sleep for optimal functioning. Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to impaired cognitive functions, including memory, attention, and decision-making – all critical for a practicing doctor.

Historical and real-life examples abound illustrating the risks of chronic sleep deprivation. For instance, a famous case is that of a medical resident, whose continuous long shifts with minimal sleep led to a significant error in patient care.

This case was a key factor in reshaping resident work-hour policies in the United States.

Another example is a study published in the “Journal of the American Medical Association,” which found that surgical residents who slept less than six hours per night had more than double the risk of making significant medical errors, compared to those who slept for at least six hours.

These examples and research findings underscore the fallacy of the four-hour sleep cycle. They highlight the importance of adequate sleep for maintaining cognitive sharpness and decision-making abilities, especially in high-stakes professions like medicine.

Instead of reducing sleep hours, the focus should be on enhancing sleep quality and ensuring sufficient rest to support optimal cognitive and physical functioning.

Finding a Balance

How do we strike a balance between the need for sleep and the demands of our career and personal life?

The key is focusing on quality over quantity. Here are a few strategies:

  1. Prioritize sleep: Consider sleep as a non-negotiable part of your schedule.
  2. Power naps: Short naps of 20-30 minutes can rejuvenate without affecting your nighttime sleep.
  3. Effective time management: Dedicate specific time slots for studying that don’t encroach on your sleep time.

What is equally important is the acceptance that achieving a perfect balance in every aspect of life is not always feasible.

Striving to maximize every area can lead to stress and, ultimately, be detrimental to your overall well-being and health.

It’s crucial to remember that life is a journey, not a race. Constantly pushing yourself to achieve the maximum in your career and studies at the expense of sleep and personal time can lead to burnout.

This approach can have long-term negative impacts on both your physical and mental health.

Accepting that it’s okay not to maximize every facet of life can be liberating.

Prioritizing your well-being and understanding the importance of rest and relaxation are key to sustaining progress in your career and personal life without compromising your health.

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