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Running on empty: how to fuel your body and mind for challenging times

Fruits and vegetables

In this COVID-19 Learning Series webinar, host Dr. Jillian Horton speaks with Maryam Hamidi, a member of Stanford Medicine’s WellMD & WellPhD Center team.

An expert in improving mood and cognitive performance, Maryam shares practical strategies to help physicians cope during COVID-19 through nutrition, hydration and sleep.

tweetable: "One of the biggest things that happens when we’re busy is that we stop attending to our own basic needs such as sleep, nutrition and hydration.”


During the COVID-19 pandemic, many physicians are prioritizing the delivery of frontline critical care over other aspects of their lives. What should physicians keep in mind to maintain their performance under these conditions?

  • Staying adequately hydrated is one of the easiest and most important things to do. Inadequate hydration can affect our attention, reaction times, judgment and short-term memory. If you can, carry your water bottle around with you. Keeping fruits and vegetables on hand in Ziploc bags can also be helpful – think grapes, cherry tomatoes, blueberries, baby carrots ‒ they’re high in vitamins and minerals but can also keep you hydrated.
  • A combination of improper sleep and nutrition can create a vicious cycle. A diet high in added sugars and saturated fat can impair mood, especially over time, as well as quality of sleep. Sleep deprivation can then lead us to crave foods that are higher in sugar and saturated fats. Eating nutrient-dense foods like green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts and legumes is one way to break this cycle.

tweetable: “The good thing is that a lot of the food organizations are supplying donations of healthy snacks and drinks to frontline health care providers.”

How can physicians strategically ward off fatigue?

  • Caffeine can keep us alert for about three hours. After that, it doesn't necessarily help with alertness or reaction times.
  • Caffeine can take between 30 to 90 minutes to take effect, and when taken before a nap, can help reduce sleep inertia.
  • There are many caffeine sources ― coffee, various teas, energy drinks, caffeinated chewing gums ― and they all produce different effects.
  • Dosing and timing varies for individual people, so you should measure your intake accordingly.
  • Some people are sensitive to caffeine, which can enhance their stress or anxiety. It can also impair sleep when consumed too close to bedtime.
  • While using caffeine strategically can suppress the need to sleep for up to 36 hours, beyond that, no amount can prevent you from falling asleep.
  • Chewing gum can also help you stay awake and alert for an overnight shift, and it can help reduce stress as well.
  • But there’s no replacement for sleep – it’s one of the most effective things you can do to stay healthy and alert. Most people need at least seven hours for good immune health.

tweetable: “If you’re doing a 12-hour shift, ideally you want to have caffeine at the beginning of the shift and maybe in the middle, and then try to limit your caffeine intake at least six hours prior to the time you're planning to go to bed.” 

Right now, everyone is interested in how to boost their immunity. Are there any supplements physicians should consider to boost their immune function?

  • Some supplements that can help prevent colds and flus aren’t helpful once symptoms have started. In fact, they can make things worse. Unless you’re advised to do so by your health care provider, it’s best to get your vitamins from foods.
  • Vitamin C supplements in high doses can cause kidney stones, especially for someone who isn’t getting enough fluids. Maryam suggests getting vitamin C from foods like kiwis, oranges, bell peppers, broccoli and melons.
  • Zinc can also be helpful, and you can get the appropriate amount through protein sources, rather than supplements.


This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The opinions stated by the authors are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries including Joule.  Feel passionate about this topic? Please connect with us at

About the author(s)

The CMA unites the medical profession in Canada to improve the health of Canadians and strengthen the health care system.