Natural sleep-enhancement methods physicians can use tonight

By Richard Chachowski
Published January 3, 2022

Key Takeaways

Few things are more restorative than a quality night of sleep. The recommended 7-9 nightly hours of shuteye are essential for attention acuity, cognitive adroitness, swift reaction times, and mood stabilization—all qualities you’d probably prefer to have in spades as an HCP. 

Unfortunately, many of you are working overtime. According to the Physicians Foundation’s 2018 Survey of American Physicians, doctors work anywhere from 41-60 hours a week, while the national average stands at 34.7 hours. That extra work often translates to sleep deprivation. According to a 2018 Journal of Community Health study, about 45% of healthcare workers sleep fewer than 7 hours nightly. Healthcare was second only to protective service and military, of which 50% sleep fewer than 7 hours.

Not getting enough sleep can take a serious toll on your health, with a 2016 Current Opinion in Cardiology study showing that inadequate sleep is associated with weight gain, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and early mortality. It can also undermine judgment, mood, and cognitive abilities, and cause heightened stress. A 2020 JAMA Network Open study found that physicians with high levels of sleep deprivation were 97% more likely to self-report a serious medical error. And, according to a Sleep Health study, nurses who slept fewer than 7 hours before a work day were similarly found to have lower ratings of quality of care and patient safety.

The case is clear: If you want to be a more effective HCP, you need to improve the quality and duration of your sleep. While pharmaceuticals are an option, some may prefer to first try more natural methods. The following natural approaches are clinically validated. 

Exercise regularly

Physical activity is obviously important for a variety of reasons, but exercising on a regular basis can also affect how tired you feel at the end of the day, paving the way for restorative, uninterrupted sleep when you finally turn in.

A 2017 Advances in Preventive Medicine review found a correlation between people with higher levels of regular physical activity and better sleep, especially for older individuals. That raises the question of what types of physical activity benefit sleep. For people diagnosed with insomnia, a 2019 Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry study found that moderate resistance training and stretching led to objective and subjective sleep improvements, lengthier sleep durations, decreased waking episodes during the night, and generally less stress and tension overall.

Drink herbal or decaffeinated tea

It’s impossible to pinpoint one simple explanation for why many HCPs receive insufficient sleep, but it’s likely some combination of stress and variable hours/shift work. Some herbal or decaffeinated tea may take the edge off both.

A 2020 Complementary Therapies in Medicine study found that lavender tea reduced anxiety and depression scores among the elderly (an at-risk group for depression and anxiety), making it an effective tea choice to unwind with. Chamomile is another option. A 2019 Phytotherapy Research meta analysis found that chamomile extract also improves overall sleep quality, with a limited 2016 Phytomedicine study reporting long-term chamomile consumption was effective in combating moderate to severe generalized anxiety disorder. 

No matter your tea choice, be sure you choose herbal or decaffeinated. According to the American Academy of Sleep, caffeine has a half-life of 3-5 hours, meaning a cup of late afternoon coffee could affect your ability to fall asleep at night. To make it easier to sleep at the end of the day, avoid caffeine or sugar before bed—including caffeinated teas, sodas, chocolate, and other sweets.

Read or listen to music before bed

A relaxing evening routine can ease the transition into sleep. Try reserving an hour before bed for “quiet time,” wherein you avoid strenuous exercises and artificial light. A 2017 Chronobiology International study found that bright screens—from phones, TVs, and computers—negatively affected melatonin secretion, disrupted sleep patterns and morning attention, and resulted in daytime drowsiness.

To avoid that wakefulness, turn off screens before bed and opt for reading a book, listening to calming music, or doing yoga or breathing exercises to reach a relaxed state of mind that will help you slip more easily into la-la-land.

Take a hot shower or bath

Cold and hot showers each have their own benefits—cold water being beneficial for circulation, boosting metabolism and improving recovery—but in terms of getting ready for bed, we suggest a hot shower an hour or so before lights out.

A 2019 meta-analysis in Sleep Medicine Reviews found that taking a hot shower or bath improved overall sleep quality, and that those who showered/bathed 1-2 hours before bed had shorter sleep onset latency (SOL). A 2021 Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine study similarly found that older adults who took a hot bath 1-3 hours before bed had decreased SOL rates as well.

Researchers behind a 2020 study in Current Opinion in Physiology have attributed hot showers to aiding the body’s thermoregulation process. By immersing yourself in hot water, you’re speeding this process along, meaning shortened SOL levels and an easier time falling asleep (a phenomenon known as the “warm bath effect”).

Set a strict sleep schedule

HCPs may have chaotic work schedules, but it’s critical that you maintain a healthy balance between wakefulness and sleep. To do so, you can start by supporting your natural circadian rhythm.

By sticking to your circadian rhythm, you attune to the natural sleep and wake signals of your body. One way to enhance the effects is to stick to consistent sleep and wake times. For example, if you decide to turn in at 10:30 every night, it’s only a matter of time before you start getting drowsy around 10.

To keep this balanced sleep schedule in place, it’s important to also wake up around the same time every day, maintaining your schedule even on your days free from work.

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