What’s Up with Fatigue?

July 23, 2018

I hear it all the time. It seems everyone I meet is tired. It gets me to wondering what’s up with that?


Now I get that many of us are over-scheduled and work hard. I get it. I work hard, too, running three small businesses, teaching all over the globe, writing and staying fit, while cooking and cleaning. I truly do understand hard work.


Each night, I fall into bed, exhausted from my day’s adventures. I wake up, ready to go again. Many of us don’t and I’d like to talk about why that might be, since it seems to be so prevalent in our culture these days.


Some statistics, if you will. We all know experts recommend 7-8 hour sleep per night. Of Americans doing that, getting enough sleep, only 1 in 7 wake up feeling refreshed and wake without an alarm. 45% of Americans sleeping 7 -8 hours a night wake up feeling tired 3 days each week and 27% getting enough sleep wake up feeling tired more than 4 days a week.


Not surprisingly, those sleeping 6 hours or less each night, wake up feeling the most tired.


Could there be a reason we feel so tired all the time? And can we fix it?


Yes…and yes.


In our modern culture, we don’t think of fatigue as being sick, but maybe we should (I’m not referring to the medical condition known as Chronic Fatigue). So be sure to rule out real medical conditions that might cause your tiredness. And then let’s get on with getting your groove back.


In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we see daily (what we see as harmless) fatigue as the gateway to disease. No one really thinks anything of it. Everyone we meet is tired. Think about it: you meet a friend for coffee and ask how they’re doing. Tired is usually the answer to which you respond, yeah, me, too.


What makes us tired is easily remedied, if you’re willing to make real and concrete changes to how you live…and eat.


In TCM, we say that feeling tired all the time is caused by poor digestion of poor quality food and is the beginning of disease in the human body…and the primary cause of fatigue.


Wait, what? You’re just tired like everyone else, not sick, right? Wrong…sort of…


Our bodies rely on the best quality fuel we can give them to function at their very best and yet, we take better care of our cars than our bodies. We rotate the tires and change the oil. We make sure there’s enough fluid in the windshield washers. And yet we eat anything that doesn’t move or anything that’s marketed to us with little regard for its impact on our wellness. And then we wonder why we feel exhausted so much of the time.


I’ve just returned from five weeks working in Spain and Italy and I, as always, learned so very much while there. I always marvel at what I consider to be the more natural pace of life there (American translation: slow). I love that many important discussions are held in a coffee shop where we can linger, even over business talks. I love that meal times are inviolate. There’s no (or very little) eating in the car on the way to an event; no eating while you walk; no eating standing up and very little take away (although this is growing as tourists demand take away food). The traditions of life and of eating (which are intricately entwined) are that we cook (we cook…we…) the best food we can afford, locally and in season (most delicious and affordable) and we enjoy it with gratitude and with those we love.


Now before you comment otherwise, these are people who work hard as well. Granted, they are not as driven as we are in America. They care less about computers and televisions in every room than they do about the social aspect of being human. They want to be together and socialize, tribal, clannish. They like to say that they work to live while we live to work. I am guilty of it myself at times. After weeks of this lovely, natural lifestyle and way of working (yes, I was working in Europe), I found myself racing task to task, appointment to appointment, email to email nearly as soon as my feet hit the ground back home. I had to pull up short and stop myself from falling into the patterns that can drain me of my vitality. But there’s so much to do, right? There is; I know. But I have stepped back and said to myself…self, remember what’s important.


My husband fell, while running and broke his knee cap right before we left for Europe. One night, post-surgery, we were sitting together laughing ourselves silly about something and I thought: this is what matters. This; these moments. This is important. Not the emails that will go unanswered until I return; not the content I won’t get written before I leave, nor the laundry or the cleaning. Moments when we love and laugh are what we will remember.


So how do you battle fatigue in a culture so invested (or so it seems) in you being tired? It starts in the kitchen (surprise!).


When we eat processed, packaged foods, even organic vegan/macrobiotic ones, we sell ourselves short. Instant miso soup, breakfast burritos, pot pies and vegan pizza will never leave you feeling like you’ve had the meal of your life. We all know this. Having just hosted groups in Italy, I can’t count the number of times my guests said, “This was the best meal of my life” only to have them revise it the next day as they ate the next “best meal” of their lives.


Why do you think that was? Because I am a genius chef? Because they were on vacation? Hardly. But when you combine the freshest of ingredients with simple cooking techniques and a passion for cooking (a key ingredient if there ever was one), you have pretty much perfect meals every…single…time you cook.


When we choose whole, unprocessed foods that are fresh, seasonal and full of life, we choose life. Whole grains, beans and vegetables with fresh, seasonal fruits, nuts and seeds and good quality fats provide us with all the energy we need and none of the lethargy that seems to be the signature of the Standard American Diet and all the other high-protein, low-fat and fad diets.


As you choose your foods, keep nutrients in mind; in particular the essential fatty acid, Omega-3. According to a 2009 study by scientists at Italy’s University of Siena, volunteers who took this essential nutrient for 21 days demonstrated faster mental reaction times. They also reported feeling more vigorous.


And I could never repeat enough the importance of whole grains and complex carbohydrates in your meals. They take longer to digest than refined carbs and prevent fluctuations in blood sugar.


Along with diet, there’s movement. Yup, exercise; strenuous exercise. I know that the last thing you want to do consider when you’re tired is exercise, but what a difference you will see in your wellness if you just get moving.


“Exercise has consistently been linked to improved vigor and overall quality of life,” says Kerry J. Stewart, professor of medicine and director of clinical and research exercise physiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “People who become active have a greater sense of self-confidence. But exercise also improves the working efficiency of your heart, lungs, and muscles,” Stewart says. “That’s the equivalent of improving the fuel efficiency of a car. It gives you more energy for any kind of activity.”


So, as the saying goes…just do it.


And then there’s water. Staying hydrated seems to challenge us, even as we see people walking the streets with water bottles like never before. If dehydration makes it hard for athletes to compete at their best, what do we think it will do to us as we try to complete our daily chores?


Dehydration can result in a drop in blood pressure, decreased alertness, compromised concentration and feeling dead tired.


How do you know if you’re drinking enough? You can do the math with body weight and ounces of water (take 2/3 of your body weight (or 67%) and that’s the amount in ounces you should drink) or you can simply monitor your pee. If it’s pale yellow or light straw colored, then you’re doing okay in the hydration department. If it’s darker, drink up. If it’s clear as a bell, back off the water a wee bit so you don’t look and feel washed out. Cool?


Okay, so you’re cooking fresh foods and drinking plenty of water. What else can ensure your energy stays high?


Go to bed. We know that lack of sleep can be deadly for our vitality so skip all the late night shows (I know we want to laugh right now at the political chaos around us, but…) and go to bed a bit earlier. You can still lead a fun and full life without staying up until the wee hours (unless you work at those times of course…). Take a look at the time you need to rise every day and back up eight hours. That’s your best bed time for you to feel most energetic.  


If you miss out on Z’s once in a while, try to steal a 10-minute nap to refresh your energy. If you can’t nap in your life, just take a few deep breaths with your eyes closed and you’ll feel your energy return temporarily, but seriously, sleep.


Pay attention to your nature. Some people feel like they could change the world first thing in the morning. We call them “morning people.” Other people do their best work late in the day or at night. We call them “night owls.” (I’m one of these…). Determined by brain structure and genetics, these patterns can be tough to change, so don’t stress over them. Learn to honor your circadian rhythms and schedule your most demanding tasks when you know your energy will be at its peak.


Manage your weight. Sorry kids, but hauling around more weight than you need, can zap your energy. While not everyone is a size 2, we all know when we are carrying around more of us than we should. Just a wee bit less body fat can give us a powerful energy boost that lasts, creating a better quality of life. Of course, once you start working out regularly, your body will find its balance and you’ll be exactly where your genetic set point wants to live.


As you change your diet, you may find that you’re hungry more often until your digestion settles into the higher fiber diet, so eat a bit more often. Some people find that their energy stays high if they eat smaller meals frequently throughout the day as it helps stabilize blood sugar until your digestion becomes more efficient. If this is you, keep your portions smaller for these more frequent meals and be sure to eat lots and lots of vegetables.


You can leave fatigue behind and become one of those people that everyone thinks has taken to napping or retired from their job early. You’ll have so much energy, your friends will demand your secrets…and you’ll be happy to share them.