So we’ve all been there, where we may be a little burnt out. Perhaps we’ve been working a little too hard, ‘firing on all cylinders’ for too long. Maybe we’ve been sacrificing sleep to keep up with our busy lives ‘burning the candle at both ends’ so to speak. Maybe it has eventually caught up with us and we find ourselves in a state of exhaustion and fatigue.
What we must come to realise that unless we make the necessary and simple changes it’s very difficult to break the cycle.
Hopefully this article provide you with some useful and practical tools, both nutritional and lifestyle to help you combat fatigue once and for all so you can perform at your very best in work and life.
First of all it is important to understand how you got here, into such a state of fatigue.
You Are Only Human
Let’s face it life is very demanding and does expect you to be functioning at top form whilst attempting to balance your family, work, social life and all the stresses in between. You are not super human so don’t be so hard on yourself it is ok to feel tired.
You see having learnt from experience, the key here is to take note of when you are fatigued as an indicator or red flag as such. It is an alarm bell telling you to SLOW DOWN. It is vital to look after yourself or else you most definitely wont be able to function at your best, you will make yourself ill and I’m guessing you probably don’t have time for that right?
Fatigue & Stress
A little amount of stress actually good for us, it keeps us motivated and gives us the fire to get tasks done. Psychology Today discuss the “Theory of Mental Toughness” and that “experiencing some manageable stressors, with recovery in between, can make us more mentally and physically tough and less reactive to future stress” (1). The key here you see is ‘recovery in between’.
Think about it, when you train your body in the gym your body needs to recover. Similarly, just like rest your body after a heavy training session you must rest your mind also, you wouldn’t run with a pulled muscle would you? You would only do further injury. It makes total sense.
So what happens if we don’t take the opportunity to recover?….we burn out.
Fatigue & Burnout
So maybe we’ve pushed ourselves too far and most of us will experience this at some stage of our lives if we haven’t done already. HelpGuide.Org describe burnout as “a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands” (2). They describe how stress and burn out “reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give” (2). Does this sound familiar?
So how do I combat fatigue you may ask?
Here are some nutritional and lifestyle strategies to help both in protection and recovery of fatigue.
I’m sure we’re all probably well aware of the importance of sleep. Just like food is our fuel, sleep is our battery. We can’t possibly expect to function at our best if we’re not getting enough hours sleep. For instance the American Psychological Association describe how poor sleep can “can affect memory, judgment and mood” (3).
In fact we can get ourselves into a vicious cycle with stress preventing us from sleeping, lack of sleep reducing our productivity and thought processes and not being able to sleep because we are stressed.
- Caffeine – Caffeine is a stimulant and can stay in our systems for 4-5 hours, so in order to increase our chances of a good night sleep I recommend having your last caffeinated drinks (tea, coffee, colas) 6 hours before bedtime perhaps opting for decaffeinated versions, herbal teas and water instead (4).
- Eating before bedtime – Yes it’s true, eating before bedtime is not good for you and not alone will it disrupt your sleep but it also disrupts your digestive and healing processes. You see your body is meant to go into a state of starvation when we sleep, really! This is to allow our organs to rest, recover and heal. If you eat before bedtime you are preventing your body is digesting instead of repairing. We also don’t need much energy to sleep as well as the whole gravity side of things, we’re lying down so our food wont digest efficiently also. Avoid complex meals late in the evening or at night. For those doing shift work I will be doing a separate blog on this so keep posted.
We’re all aware at this stage that we get our energy from food right? But it’s not that simple, it’s important that the energy we consume is also nutritious.
- Carbohydrates – Are our main source of energy but it’s about choosing the correct types. Foods high in sugar are known as empty calories with little or no nutritional value and leaving us craving sugar, these include sugary treats, white breads, white pasta and sugar sweetened beverages. In fact stress increases our cravings for this types of foods so it’s important not to feed it. (see my sugar blog here for more information on how to combat sugar cravings).
We want to consume carbohydrate based foods which support us and keep our energy sustained for longer. These foods include brown and wholegrain foods such as wholegrain bread, pasta and rice which are slowly absorbed into our bloodstream and keeps our energy sustained for longer (this is particularly important for any diabetics too, as a key to stabilising blood sugar levels).
- Protein – Just like we need our carbohydrates for energy we need a variety of good quality protein for recovery and repair. In fact virtually every cell in the body is made up of different protein combinations such as muscles, hair, skin and bones at a basic level and hormonal function, immune health, metabolism and oxygen transport to name a few. So it’s kind of important!
The key here is to get a wide variety to meet all the different functions. Good sources would be lean meat, turkey, chicken, oily fish, dairy products, cheese, pulses, nuts, seeds as well as eggs being one of the most bioavailable source of protein. Quorn is also a good source for the vegetarians out there, is a mycoprotein in which is derived from mushrooms which is low in fat and high in fibre (5).
- Healthy Fats – There is a misconception that all fats are bad and a lot of confusion due to media publications. Let me clear this up a little for you, we need some fats in our diet to absorb our fat soluble vitamins A, D, E & K.
As a nutritionist, my recommendation is to include nutritious fats in your diet such as oily fish, nuts, seeds, grains, olive oil, rapeseed oil, coconut oil as avocados.
These nutritious fats are not alone great for hair, skin and nails (which often suffer with stress) but also circulation, concentration and joint health. So an all round nutrition support for your health (6, 7).
What other nutrients help to support us during periods of stress
- Magnesium – Can play a major role in combating fatigue, however as result of modern cooking techniques and food processing, magnesium is a mineral which is deficient in many of our diets. Many of us underestimate the importance of this nutrient (just because it’s a micronutrient it doesn’t mean it’s not important), in fact it’s essential. It also plays so very important roles including energy metabolism, aiding in the absorption of calcium and potassium, muscular, heart and bone health (8).
Magnesium as also been nicknamed ‘the chill pill‘ or ‘natures natural sedative‘ as it’s been shown to help with anxiety, depression, irritability, headaches, sleeping issues, muscle cramps, with stress massively increasing or requirement for magnesium (9).
- CoQ10 – Is something we make within our bodies which plays an essential role in converting our food energy (calories) into energy our body can use (ATP), without out this we can’t make energy so it’s kind of important. Unfortunately our production of CoQ10 reduces as we get older resulting in a reduced metabolism (making of energy) and increased fatigue.
CoQ10 is also a powerful antioxidant, protecting our cells from oxidative damage. Oxidation can contribute to heart disease, cancer and even the ageing process (10). As it is difficult to get antioxidants through diet alone for instance fruits and vegetables, CoQ10 supplementation could be a great way of protecting our body from illness as well as getting the best benefit in terms of energy from our foods. The Pharma Nord CoQ10 is fabulous supplement and the best that I’ve been able to find due to it’s great absorption levels (11).
- Ginseng – Can be an amazing tool for those individuals who are going through extreme bouts of fatigue perhaps due to being severely run down or bouts of illness. Ginseng is often found in ‘extract’ form in many multivitamins but the best effects come from the Ginseng root I recommend the Ortis Panex Ginseng which is pure liquid panex ginseng with vitamin E. I also recommend the A. Vogel Ginsavena herbal remedy which contains Siberian ginseng with Avena Savita (which is energy boosting with calming properties too (12, 13)
WARNING: Do not take ginseng if you are pregnant, suffer from high blood pressure or are taking anti-coagulents (blood thinners). It is also not suitable if you are diabetic, where there is a family history or risk of oestrogen-dependent cancers. This product should not be used with other stimulants (12).
Okay, so what we’ve started to do here is to fill a toolbox for combating fatigue, so far we have sleep and nutrition but we also need some other tools to help prevent and combat fatigue.
- Learn how to say no – when you’re stress is spilling over and you’re not able to cope you need to practice saying no, and firmly. This can be a lot more difficult than we think. A great way it practice this is to keep a schedule or diary, if it doesn’t fit your schedule say no, “I’m sorry but I’m not free and I have an appointment” even if that appointment is with yourself (book time in with yourself too).
- Lists – boy do I love lists, it takes the pressure of my already over-functioning brain to try and remember everything. Free up some brain space! I keep the list beside my bed too, if there’s anything I begin to think of as I’m dropping off to sleep I write it down, so I don’t have to worry about remembering it in the morning. Make a list of ‘urgent’ and ‘not urgent’. The feeling you have ticking each task off this is just fabulous.
- Talk – It’s so important to talk, fatigue can be stressful, the smallest stress could become bottle up to the biggest problem and you’ll often find when you’ve said it out loud it’s not as bad as you think it is. Remember, just think what’s the worse thing that could happen, as Susan Jeffers says “feel the fear and do it anyway“. If there’s a solution work towards it if there’s not then we need to change our resources on how to deal with it but it is important to talk. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone you know there are plenty of confidential helplines (in Ireland call Samaritans on 116 123 or Aware on 1800 80 48 48) for full support (13, 14).
- Relax the mind – Be it through exercise which naturally increases your endorphins and improves sleep, cooking yourself a nice healthy meal, through meditation, breathing techniques or even try some mindfulness activities here (15).
So now we have a full toolkit for which to prevent and combat fatigue through sleep, nutrition and tools to keep us strong in the face of stress and we’re ready to take on the world.
Here with you every step of the way,
Laurann O’Reilly – Nutritionist