Normally, when it’s not December and there are fewer nights out, you deserve a gold star for your sleep hygiene: You aim to get into bed by 10pm, are out like a light, and generally, sleep through to your morning alarm. So why is it then that, instead of springing out of bed like the Duracell bunny, your get-up routine is more, well, lethargic? According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, one in five people experience unusual tiredness at any given time, while one in ten show symptoms of exhaustion.
“Exhaustion is overwhelming,” says nutritionist Jennie Gough (jenniegough.com), who has herself suffered from – and overcome – the condition. “It’s not like normal tiredness. It’s like you’re trying to move through thick mud, and think through thick fog. All you want to do is lie down and sleep – and then sleep some more, after that. You can’t function because everything leaves you wiped out.”
What causes exhaustion
Indeed, exhaustion is described as a state of extreme physical or mental tiredness. Caused by? “Chronic fatigue syndrome occurs when energy delivery mechanisms in the body are down, or energy is being used by the immune system to, say, fight a chronic infection,’ says Dr Sarah Myhill, author of Diagnosis and Treatment of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Myalgic Encephalitis (drmyhill.co.uk). Which means? “There is no energy left to live.”
“The symptom of stress occurs when the brain knows it does not have the energy to deal with the demands of life,” Dr Myhill continues. “If we mask that symptom – with a prop such as sugar, alcohol or caffeine – then we “sail close to the wind” and a minor viral infection could be all it takes to flip the body into a CFS state.”
So, potentially all you multi-tasking, high achieving, Type A women could be at risk. “We’re seeing an increasing number of women with symptoms of exhaustion,” says Dr Sarah Brewer, GP and Healthspan medical director (drsarahbrewer.com). “Perhaps because they are more likely to juggle different aspects of life and have less time to prioritise their own health.”
Worried it sounds remarkably like you?
Here are ten common symptoms of exhaustion to watch out for:
• You can’t think straight – or at all
• You are more than stressed out
• Your usual healthy go-tos have been replaced by chocolate bars, crisps and coke
• You find yourself counting sheep one too many nights in a row
• Your lips are constantly cracked and dry
• You can’t bear the thought of the gym – and when you do manage to drag yourself there, your PBs have significantly dropped
• Your mood is tumultuous to say the least
• You feel short of breath – even when you’re doing nothing at all
• You seem to permanently house the office cold
• Your sofa is fast becoming your new BFF
But we hear you, you can’t quit your job / become a hermit / live under your duvet for days on end. So, you’ve just got to get on with life, right? Drink a few more coffees, eat a few more energy balls, cram in a few more runs. But not putting yourself first every once in a while, can eventually take its toll. Think conditions such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and Adrenal Fatigue. Need more motivation to change your ways? Read our guide to adrenal fatigue symptoms and find out what it’s like to live with the condition.
Think you might be at risk – or already showing symptoms of exhaustion? Visit your GP. “When someone is showing signs of exhaustion,” Dr Brewer says, “a GP should ask questions to help pinpoint the cause (for example, could it be the result of lifestyle, stress, depression, post-viral fatigue, medication side effects or pregnancy?). They should also examine you – checking your blood pressure, heart rhythm, temperature, thyroid size, liver, and look for any obvious intra-abdominal lumps).” Still at odds? “Request a screening test to rule out conditions such as a hidden infection, anaemia, diabetes, thryoid or other autoimmune diseases, kidney liver or heart problems,” Dr Brewer suggests.
Exhaustion symptoms – how to deal with them
The good news is you’re halfway there to making a recovery. Identifying the signs of exhaustion is a major first step to stopping them in their tracks. And you can fight fatigue with tiny tweaks to your diet and lifestyle. Is that your shiny new energised self we see coming? Well hello.
It’s pretty simple – out with energy-zapping foods, in with energy-pumping alternatives, and make a few – minor – adjustments to your current lifestyle. Oh, and don’t break the following rules, says Gough. You’ll thank us for it in the long run.
1. Eat smaller, more regular meals
AKA get snacking. ‘Eating every three to four hours can help reduce sugar cravings and prevent blood sugar crashes that can stress your body and make you feel more tired,’ Gough says.
2. Get 7-8 hours of (quality) sleep per night
‘It’s important to establish good sleep habits and a regular bedtime routine,’ Gough says. Feel like your five? Suck it. ‘Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol in the evening, unplug electronics and adjust your bedroom temperature to a be bit cooler.’
3. Control your cortisol
‘Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone,’ Gough says. ‘For some people, chronic fatigue may be linked to a disruption in their normal cortisol rhythm. Rebalance yours by managing your stress levels.’ Easier said than done? Try this technique for relieving stress in three minutes.
FIGHT FATIGUE: THE DIET
FOODS TO FUEL UP ON
Well, anything rich in protein, to be honest – chicken, fish, quinoa, the list goes on. ‘Include protein at each meal to keep blood sugar levels balanced and to avoid mid-afternoon energy slumps,’ Millen says. Nutritional therapist (libbylimon.com) Libby Limon steps it up a notch. ‘Combining proteins with healthy fats is the best way to give a sustainable energy supply to the body,’ she says. ‘Have poached eggs with avocado, for example, or trout with a quinoa salad.’
Popeye had it right. ‘Being low on iron can make you feel tired and breathless,’ says Gough. ‘Eat plenty of leafy greens, red meat and fortified foods. If symptoms persist, ask your GP to check your iron levels to rule out anaemia.’
Can’t bear the food prep faff? Any other slow-release carb – think brown rice, lentils, chickpeas – will do. ‘These are a source of glucose, which is your body’s preferred energy source,’ says Millen. ‘You need to eat it, in order to supply your muscles with energy.’ Obvs.
It’s time to rethink your relationship with this festive favourite. ‘It’s rich in B vitamins such as B6 and B12, which help support normal energy metabolism and can help reduce symptoms of exhaustion,’ Gough says. Veggie? Wholegrain cereals like oats and brown rice, will also do the trick.
They’re pretty much good at everything so no wonder they’ve made the cut for combating fatigue. The reason? They’re a solid source of magnesium. ‘Your body needs magnesium in order to manufacture energy so if levels are low, you’ll be persistently tired,’ Gough says. Other sources of the mineral include green leafy vegetables and seeds.
FOODS TO AVOID
‘Yes, they make you feel great initially,’ says Gough. ‘But they can be too stimulating, and lead to a “crash and burn” effect – adding significant stress to your adrenal glands and depleting your body of vital energy.’ The same goes for anything containing caffeine. Soz. Really can’t go without? ‘Try organic green tea,’ says Limon. ‘Unlike coffee, it slowly releases caffeine due to an amino-acid called L-Theanine, which counters with a calming effect.’ Magic.
First up – there’s no such thing as just having one. Secondly, highly processed or sugar foods (such as cakes, chocolate and biscuits) send your blood sugar levels on a rollercoaster ride to fatigue, anxiety and cravings. ‘Choose fruit and slow-releasing carbs to keep energy levels more stable,’ Gough says.
And G&Ts. And wine. It’s basically time to go alcohol-free. ‘Alcohol wreaks havoc with blood sugar levels and can whip the adrenal glands,’ Millen says.
The best supplements and vitamins for tiredness
‘B vitamins are co-factors for Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), your body’s energy source,’ Millen says. Look for a supplement that contains all the B vitamins – these nutrients work best as a team. But watch out. ‘It is important not to consume too much so always consult your doctor or a nutritionist before taking any supplements,’ Gough says.
Feeling wired? Then this is the one for you. ‘This is an adaptogenic herb, which helps to balance cortisol levels,’ Millen says.
‘This can boost physical energy, prevent fatigue and improve endurance,’ Dr Brewer says.
Image: Cat Meffan
How to get rid of tiredness with exercise
Chances are exercise is going to be the last thing on your mind but, when it comes to fending off signs of exhaustion, it’s important to keep the body moving. Health coach Emily Cohen (emilycohen.co.uk) suggests going back to basics: ‘Take the stairs when you can, walk around the block in your lunchbreak and do a few stretches before bed.’ Combine that with Limon’s mindful exercises for the optimum fatigue-fighting approach:
‘Close your eyes and breathe in for a count of two, then out for a count of four,’ she says. ‘Breathing out for longer than you breathe in, soothes and relaxes the nervous system.’
‘Focus on one part of your body at a time, starting with your toes,’ she says. ‘With each breath, work your way up your body. This is a fantastic way to relax the mind and switch off from stress.’
‘Opt for passive techniques that focus on breathing to revive and energise,’ she says. ‘Yoga nidra, for example, is very nourishing for the body. If you can’t find a class, there are lots of recordings to follow online.’
‘Choose a restorative type such as bridge pose, with a yoga block placed under the sacrum to support and take the weight, and hold for 3-5 minutes,’ she says.
Click here to find out how to improve your stamina and combat the symptoms of exhaustion with one-minute exercise.