Take a stroll through any emergency department or hospital break room, and what do you see? Chips, pop, candy bars, and different flavors of junk food.
Working in the trenches of medicine requires stamina and mental fortitude. Fueling the body and mind is critical for optimal performance and patient care. Unfortunately, many health care professionals are killing themselves by what they put into their mouths.
A few years ago, I began to moonlight in a very busy urgent care center in addition to my scheduled ED shifts. I enjoyed the work and camaraderie, but the crush of over 45,000 patients a year took its toll on the physician group. We often worked short-staffed and relied on caffeine and sugar to get through the day.
Over the course of that year, I found myself drinking up to six diet cokes and scarfing down a candy bar or two every night. My partner had a stash of a PPI, and we popped those like candy as well.
Later that year, I found myself sedated for an EGD due to recurrent GERD and chest pain. The telltale signs of gastric and esophageal erosions got my attention. After recently diagnosing a patient with esophageal cancer, the looming risk of Barrett’s esophagus was more than enough to realign my diet.
One senior physician with whom I loved working was famous for arriving in the ED with an assortment of fried food to eat and share with the staff. Sadly, his health deteriorated, and his weight and blood pressure soared. He suffered from episodic atrial fibrillation and was cardioverted by fellow colleagues numerous times. I’ve since lost touch with him, but I hope he saw the light and revamped his perspective on eating.
Like most physicians of my era, we received a meager hour or two of nutrition lectures during medical school. I was on my own and sought counsel from nutritionists, fellow athlete-colleagues, and even completed a plant-based nutrition course from Cornell.
Armed with a completely revised diet and knowledge base, I quickly noticed changes in my energy level and ability to focus. By replacing diet soda with green tea and water, I could easily get through even the most grueling shift. Long gone were the candy bars, and a quick hit of fruit such as grapes or apple slices not only kept my dentist happy but also prevented the mental sugar crashes common with eating refined carbohydrates and processed junk.
My interest in nutrition, endurance sports, and self-preservation led to experimentation with a variety of supplements. Over the last decade, I have perfected what works for me. A combination of magnesium, cordyceps, CoQ10, branched-chain aminos, and glutamine are a daily staple and provide lasting energy and mental clarity to get me through a 24 hour ER shift or long course triathlon.
Showing up in the clinic or ED with a jar of green smoothie continues to bring snickers from colleagues, but the proof is concrete. Replacing anything in a wrapper with whole foods has the power to transform a person’s health. One doesn’t have to take a course or become certified in nutrition to reap the benefits.
Our patients rely on us to teach and lead by example. While there are a variety of diets (some individuals may advocate a paleo, plant-based, ketogenic or another diet plan), it is crystal clear that what we put into our bodies has the power to impact our genetic code, turn on or off disease processes, and determine our longevity. Despite resistance, I believe it is our duty as healers to arm our patients with essential nutritional facts to steer their health in a direction we all desire.
Mitchel Schwindt is an emergency physician. This article originally appeared in the Healthcare Career Resources Blog.
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