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Q: Help! I’m always tired. What should I do?
A: You can be tired for a million different reasons, but it makes sense to start with the most obvious ones.
Improve the quality of your sleep.
Number one is sleep. There’s an old saying that goes like this: When you hear hoofbeats outside your window, don’t start looking for zebras. When you’re looking for an explanation for something, it always makes sense to start with the obvious. Sure, you could be tired because of a weird food sensitivity, or because of some undiagnosed medical condition, but the most obvious and common cause of fatigue is something that just about everybody in modern life experiences: inadequate sleep.
Sleep disturbances can cause weight gain, mood disturbances, brain fog, abdominal fat, increased blood pressure, loss of memory, loss of mental clarity, increased stress levels, and have several other negative effects, the most obvious of which is a constant, nagging fatigue. During sleep, your body solidifies memories and—very importantly—manufacturers hormones (such as HGH and melatonin, both involved in well-being and energy). Sleep experts recommend a few basic steps to ensure that you’re getting the right amount—and the right quality—of sleep.
First, go to bed a half hour earlier. It’s been shown that it’s far easier to add sleep time at the front end than the back end. Second, keep the bedroom comfortably cool. Third, never go to bed with the television on. Fourth, keep the room dark. (Studies have shown that even the soft lights from the cable box can make a difference in how deeply you sleep.)
Manage adrenal health.
The adrenals are two small glands about the size of walnuts, located right above the kidneys. They are responsible for secreting all kinds of hormones, but for our purposes we’ll talk about two of them: cortisol and adrenaline. Both these hormones are known as “fight or flight” hormones, because they prepare the body for emergencies.
When our ancient cavemen ancestors spied a threatening animal in the bush, cortisol and adrenaline kicked in to allow them to either run like heck or pick up a stick and fight. These hormones raise blood pressure and heart rate, increase blood flow to the pumping legs and arms, and raise blood sugar so you have more energy available to the muscles. All of this gives you a much better chance of surviving a threat to your life.
The problem is, these stress hormones were meant to kick in once in a while, in an emergency situation. In modern life, the stress response is on 24/7. Your poor adrenals can’t keep up with the demand. Stress responses were designed to be triggered by hungry wildebeests and woolly mammoths, not by deadlines and soccer games. Ultimately, the adrenals get exhausted, and you’re tired all the time.
What to do? The first thing is to manage stress. In my most recent book, The Great Cholesterol Myth, cardiologist Stephen Sinatra and I identified stress as one of the four major contributors to heart disease. Stress will make you tired, but it will also make you fat, hungry, sick, and depressed. And if you’re walking around “tired and wired”—a condition common enough that Dr. Oz devoted an entire show to it—then chances are you’re suffering from adrenal fatigue, and the sooner you do something about it the better.
First, try some stress-management techniques. The most studied—and most effective—is meditation, but if you have trouble with that, try some simple deep breathing exercises. One of my favorites is to sit quietly at your desk, eyes closed, palms upturned and resting on your knees, while you breathe in slowly for the count of four, hold for the count of four, and exhale slowly for the count of four.
Set your timer and do this for four minutes, several times a day if you can. You can also try proven stress-management techniques like walking (preferably somewhere there’s greenery), warm baths, reading for pleasure, or just sitting quietly with nothing to do. (Try it. It’s amazing.) Anything that relaxes you, brings your heart rate down, and lowers your blood pressure works.
Cut back on sugar and carbs.
Diet is also key. I don’t have to tell you that the typical crummy American diet is energy-draining. It’s high in sugar (which plays havoc with blood sugar, which will destroy your energy). Nothing drains energy like the blood sugar roller coaster, so the first thing you want to do is cut back on carbs and increase intake of protein and good fat. Protein stimulates the metabolism, fat makes you feel satiated, and both work together to keep blood sugar on a nice even keel.
Supplements for Fatigue
There are certain supplements—known as adaptogens—that can help. Adaptogens are like a thermostat. When you set your thermostat to a comfortable 72 degrees, it heats up the room if the temperature is cold, but it cools down the room if the temperature is in the 80s. An adaptogen in your body works in a similar way. It’s a metabolic regulator. If you’re running “cool” (fatigued) it will heat you up a bit, but if you’re running “hot” (wired and tense) it will cool you down. Well-known effective adaptogens include ginseng, ashwagandha, and schizandra. Many people with fatigue have also had great results with Rhodiola rosea.
Nutrient deficiencies can also make a huge difference in your energy levels. At the very least, take a good, high-potency multiple vitamin/mineral. And be aware that stress eats up vitamin C and the B vitamins like Ms. Pac-Man on steroids. If you’re feeling stressed and tired, it might be prudent to start adding extra vitamin C and B complex to your daily regimen.
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, aka “The Rogue Nutritionist,” is a board-certified nutritionist and the best-selling author of 13 books on health, most recently The Great Cholesterol Myth (FairWinds Press, 2012). Visit him at jonnybowden.com and follow him on Twitter @jonnybowden. Do you have a health question for Jonny? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write “Health Q&A” in the subject line.