Nutrition scientist Maryam Hamidi, PhD, conducted research recently which required her to repeatedly stay awake from 8 a.m. until 5 a.m. the next day. As part of the study, she also needed to keep supplies of both healthy and unhealthy snacks stacked in her office.
Then, somewhere along the line, Hamidi, who has a doctorate in nutritional epidemiology and is a trained nutritionist, began to notice something strange about her own food cravings:
“Around 6 or 7 p.m., I would start craving chips,” she said. “I started noticing these bags of potato chips in my office. I had not craved chips since my undergraduate college years. One day I had one bag. Then a Diet Coke. And then I went for a second bag, and then a third. I was having fun. I remember thinking, ‘This is great. I should do this more often.’”
As a nutrition expert, she realized she was providing an excellent example of just how hard it can be to eat healthy when you’re exhausted, no matter how well you understand the importance of a good diet.
“I’d never eaten three bags of chips at once,” she said, laughing. “But I’d also never been that sleep-deprived.”
As a researcher at the WellMD Center, which promotes physician wellness at Stanford Medicine, Hamidi is interested in this complicated relationship between sleep and dietary behaviors. Sleep deprivation comes with the territory for physicians, who often work long hours and face interrupted shift cycles. Many researchers have looked into the various ways of improving sleep by reducing work hours or rearranging work schedules, but few have examined how improving a physician’s diet might help.
In a study published online in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, Hamidi, along with other Stanford researchers, examined survey results on sleep and nutrition from 245 Stanford physicians and found that a better diet is associated with reduced side effects of sleep deprivation. Mickey Trockel, MD, PhD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, is the senior author of the study.
Barriers to eating well
Physicians face significant barriers to eating well at work due to long hours, a heavy workload and limited access to healthy meals, snacks and drinks. The findings of this study suggest that by providing healthy options at work, employers could help reduce the brain fogginess, difficulty concentrating and irritability caused by poor sleep among health care providers. And, as a result, help improve patient care.
“No one really thinks about how a physician’s diet affects patient care,” Hamidi said.
During her 21 years of experience working side by side with physicians, Hamidi has often observed something similar to her own snack attack with the chips. It’s understandable, especially when your options are limited.