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Can you practice better medicine by getting better sleep?

Tips and tricks to make sure your dwindling down time doesn’t leave you down and out

One of the most important assets in your battle to manage the ups and downs of being a doctor is also one of the easiest to shrug off—sleep. In the long term, developing healthy sleep habits are going to be vital to surviving your life in medicine. So, how can you make those vital 7-8 hours of sleep a priority without de-prioritizing all those other priorities?

You should know better, right? You’re a doctor, after all. But even health professionals who are short on time will choose the path of least resistance when it comes to filling their stomach on a tight schedule: fast food, pre-packaged snacks, and all that good stuff high in sugar, salt, and other ingredients that actually make sleep more difficult at the end of the day. To avoid crashing and burning, many doctors avoid big meals in favour of grazing. That means smaller portions, eaten every few hours, to keep your metabolism elevated and your body ready for a good night’s sleep.

Hot Tip: if you really want to hack your sleep cycle, try eating a couple of kiwis right before bed. According to research from Taipei Medical University, the vitamins C and E, serotonin, and folate in those sweet green fruits can help you get up to an extra hour of sleep each night!

Exercise your right to exercise

You already know that physical activity is key to a healthy lifestyle—and it’s vital for healthy sleep, too. Exercise not only improves the quality of the sleep you’re already getting, it also has profound positive effects on your mental health.

Warning: be careful about when you go for that 5K run or decide to tackle that push-up challenge: studies have shown that intense physical activity later in the day might actually make it more difficult to get to sleep.

Caffeine: friend or foe?

It’s true: caffeine can boost your alertness for up to half an hour—and even the National Sleep Foundation is down with the occasional coffee, latte, tea, or can of Coke. But drinking too much has its drawbacks; caffeine overload results in restlessness and even insomnia, affecting your ability to concentrate and disrupting your natural sleep cycle.

Warning: caffeine is great for a quick jolt of energy, but don’t overuse it—in fact, recent research has found that the amount of caffeine your body can handle is hardwired into your DNA.

Harness your type-a personality

Often sleep is the activity that happens after everything else is finished—and for most doctors, there’s a lot of everything else. Fortunately, you’re highly-organized, super-disciplined, extremely intelligent—in short, you’re a doctor. Put those superpowers to work for your brain and body by giving your sleep the same thought and attention that you give your work.

Hot Tip: Research, test, and modify the sleep strategies that work best for you.

Set yourself up for success

Surgeons curate special playlists for when they operate. A family doctor’s waiting room is decorated to put patients at ease. Getting a good night’s sleep requires the same sort of set-dressing—it’s all about setting up the right conditions. From blackout blinds, to ear plugs and eye masks, to white noise machines, there are countless tools and technologies out there to help saw logs like one of those competitive lumberjacks.

Hot Tip: charge your phone somewhere other than your bedroom. Not only does this prevent you from exposing yourself to the white light of your screen (which can mess with your balance of melatonin and cortisol), it can also reduce anxiety and stress.


Rebecca Breslin
An experimenter at heart, Rebecca is always looking for ways to express her creativity. As a knowledge-seeker and advice-giver, she is committed to helping Canadian medical students, residents and all Early Career physicians live their best lives today! When she's not working, Rebecca is a world traveller with a passion for reading, writing and yoga. As a certified yoga instructor she is always looking for opportunities to grow as both a student and a teacher.