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Combat fatigue through diet, exercise, lifestyle changes

One of the most common health complaints patients have when they visit their family doctors is that they don’t have enough energy to get them through the day, that their afternoon funks or late-morning crashes are interfering with quality of life.

Unless someone’s lack of vigor is caused by a specific medical problem, however, there are ways to combat fatigue that have nothing to do with downing quart-size caramel macchiatos or human rocket fuels like Red Bull.

What it takes is a realistic look at issues such as diet, exercise, work habits and overall lifestyle. Nothing sexy here, no magic pill, just a good, hard look at habits that may be draining both your emotional and physical energy in a world on hyperdrive.


So, just where should we start? Sleep.

In his book, "The Most Effective Ways on Earth to Boost Your Energy" (Fair Winds Press), health and nutrition expert Jonny Bowden devotes an entire chapter to habits that can promote quality nighttime sleep. Poor sleep doesn’t just lead to feeling burned out during the day, but can actually contribute to other factors that exacerbate the roller coaster ride of rising and falling energy levels, Bowden said in a phone interview.

"People constantly ask, ‘Is there a pill for energy? Is there a supplement I can take for energy?’ You know, try sleeping. It’s miraculously healing for the body and reducing of stress and, by the way, when you don’t sleep enough the body perceives that as a stressor, which raises the hormone cortisol, which sends you on an eating binge, which raises insulin, which lowers blood sugar, which makes you feel more tired – so it’s a horrible, vicious cycle," he said.

Bowden’s tips for quality sleep include going to bed an hour earlier than normal to catch up on needed rest; exercising, although making sure the workout is finished at least three hours before bedtime; taking short naps no longer than 20 minutes to rejuvenate in the early afternoon; and putting aside the caffeinated beverages at least six hours before bedtime.

In fact, one of the biggest culprits when it comes to sleeplessness is caffeine, yet many don’t even realize it, according to Mary Wilson, a nutrition specialist and registered dietitian for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Even Wilson noted that those rare times she drinks caffeinated beverages, she has to stop drinking them by lunchtime or else finds herself waging war at bedtime against a brain still buzzing from the caffeine in her system.

Everyone is different, she added. Some, for example, can metabolize caffeine more quickly than others. But just like anything else, it’s a matter of understanding one’s own body.


This leads to another major issue when it comes to fatigue: diet.

The problem is we forget to look at the human body as this complicated, "amazing mechanism" that requires a balance of different foods to make sure it’s functioning properly, Wilson said. Because of busy schedules, we are often turning to sugar-loaded sodas, overloading on caffeine drinks and getting grab-and-go refined foods – all of which can wreak havoc on the body’s delicate energy balance.

One of the best ways to combat this is to make sure meals are a combination of healthful fats, protein and complex carbohydrates, Wilson noted.

Protein, for example, takes longer to digest so it helps keep the blood’s glucose level more stable, and foods containing unsaturated fats such as avocados, nuts and fish help promote satiety, or the feeling of being full. Fat has gotten a bad rap in the past, but studies are showing that a proper amount of unsaturated fat is important for the body, she said.

Carbohydrates are a vital energy source for the body and are changed into glucose, or blood sugar, to fuel the cells, tissues and organs. But eating them without sources of fat and protein is not a good idea.

According to Laura Kruskall, director of nutrition sciences for the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, eating too many carbohydrates during a meal, and especially eating carbohydrates alone, can raise the insulin level in the body, which causes blood-sugar levels to drop and energy to sag. For some people, the blood sugar can drop below normal and cause "reactive hypoglycemia," a condition that can cause fatigue and hunger.

Refined sugar, found in many packaged foods, sodas, sweets such as ice cream and baked goods, should probably be avoided for those who are worried about their energy level taking a nosedive for the same reason, she noted.

When choosing carbs it is best to eat the complex versions, which means those that have fiber and/or whole grains, such as whole grain breads and rice, because they are metabolized more slowly. Examples of good food combinations include fruit with Greek yogurt, nuts and fruit, nut butter with whole-grain bread, and hummus with whole-grain crackers, Kruskall said.

Overall, the recommended daily intake of calories from carbohydrates should be about 45 percent to 65 percent; fat, 20 percent to 35 percent; and protein, 10 percent to 35 percent, she added.

Another "real energy zapper" is dehydration, so it’s vital, especially in the hot weather, to drink small amounts of water throughout the day rather than trying to make up for it in one sitting because then the body will just eliminate it, Wilson said.

Fruits and vegetables are other good sources of water that contribute to hydration, so slice up that watermelon and leave it in the fridge to munch on throughout the day, she added.


Another way to increase energy is to actually expend energy. Exercise has been proven to release those feel-good endorphins in the brain and contribute to the overall feeling of being energized, not to mention aiding in cognition and even the generation of new brain cells, according to recent studies.

This doesn’t have to mean joining a gym or long training sessions. In fact, exercises such as going up and down stairs, jumping rope and walking are all effective, and they are activities that can fit into a busy schedule, Bowden said. The point is to find something that is enjoyable and stick with it, he added.

"An hour on the treadmill looking mindlessly at the television, hating every minute of it and not losing a pound, that is really the way of the ’80s and ’90s and it’s really out of date," he said.

But staying active to keep fatigue at bay means more than just a morning workout. According to studies, sitting for long periods of time at an office desk, for example, or in front of the TV, can result in, yes, those higher glucose levels again, higher blood lipids and a suppression of triglyceride uptake , according to Monica Lounsbery, director of the Physical Activity Policy Research Program at UNLV.

"You can get up in the morning and you can exercise and you can be physically active and meet physical-activity guidelines, but then you can go to work and have an eight-hour workday where you sit the entire time. … You can actually undo the health benefit that you did in the morning by sitting for long periods of time, that can actually be even more harmful to your health from a metabolic standpoint," she said.

Lounsbery suggests pushing away from that office desk and taking regular breaks to walk or run errands – even having "walking meetings" with co-workers rather than sitting at a conference table. The idea is to change the mindset that if you’re not sitting, you’re not working, she said.


But even those with healthful diets and a commitment to exercise can still feel fatigued simply because of the nature of how we live in a world driven by technology. The ability to multitask, for example, is still touted by many as a badge of honor but doing several things at once – finishing the budget reports from work, while booking the summer vacation, texting your kids and answering email – simply means the brain is darting from one thing to the next like a pingpong ball, Bowden said.

Studies are showing that this kind of approach to getting things done on a day-to-day basis is ineffective and, according to Bowden, mentally exhausting.

"It winds up diverting energy, preventing you from actually accomplishing things well … and that is very, very draining," Bowden said.

He recommends "monotasking," or concentrating on the task at hand in a mindful, present way, whether it is eating, exercising or finishing a report for work.

Another energy zapper is procrastination, but it can be addressed with practices such as breaking down long-term projects into small manageable steps, and "eating the frog," or just getting the toughest tasks over with by, for example, addressing them first thing in the morning, he said.

"I know for me … when you’ve got a mental to-do list that rivals ‘War and Peace’ in terms of number of pages, it takes up a lot of psychic energy," Bowden said.

And, finally, it is important to "reboot," or take time out every day to lessen the impact of those stress hormones and restore energy. Go for a walk. Play with the dog. Take a bath.

"Like a pressure cooker, it’s like opening the valve and letting some of the steam out. … Do something out of the ordinary course of events of the day," he said.

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