Fatigue

It’s not just the time of year (it’s 10 days before Christmas as I write this), although the time of year has a lot to do with it, but if you’re feeling constantly exhausted, worn out and lacking in energy, it’s likely that there’s something profoundly out of balance with your internal engine.

Tiredness comes in many shapes and forms. You may feel run down the whole day, or you may have a bit of energy in the morning, only to dip around lunch time, and then again around 4-5pm. Maybe you find that you pep up in the evening, feeling quite energized and jazzy, so you shape all those grand plans for the next day – only to wake up shattered the next morning. Perhaps when you wake up all you want to do is crawl back to bed, cuddle up with the duvet and forget about the world – at least until you feel you have enough energy to face it; except that never happens. The pattern may vary, but the essence remains the same: it’s difficult to rev the engine in the morning, and it’s an uphill struggle for the rest of the day, every day.

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Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Fatigue is an all too common complaint nowadays. It’s made all the more prominent against the background of our get-up-and-go society, which encourages relentless action and perceives relaxation as a luxury punctuation mark between long periods of incessant activity. Keeping up with the rat race, and frankly, even with the pace of an average family life nowadays can be, and is exhausting. Still, to feel regularly tired and to struggle each day just isn’t right. Given sufficient sleep, we should be able to get up refreshed and have enough stamina to carry us through the day without feeling like a wrung out cloth throughout most of it. Most fatigued people know it; they just don’t know what to do about it.

Tiredness is an alarm bell

Looking at it from Nature’s perspective, the important thing to remember about fatigue is that it is a very strong signal from your body that you urgently need to reduce stress on the system. Those who are familiar with my other writings will know that by ‘stress’ I mean a lot more than just work-related or emotional stress, although naturally these can also have a very big impact. Think about the way your car cries for relief just before you change gears. This is exactly the sound your body is making, day in day out, but you go on pressing the gas. Carry along for long enough or hard enough without changing into the right gear, and your engine will give out. In other words, you risk undermining your immune system badly enough to leave yourself open to the kind of viruses which cause mononucleosis (the ‘kissing disease’) and ME.

If you interpret the choking sounds of your motor early enough, you’ll have every chance of saving it from an unpleasant and costly burn-out. In this article, I’d like to call your attention to the less acknowledged reasons for fatigue.

Food and fatigue

First, the diet. Most people do not acknowledge the debilitating effect diet potentially has on our well-being. You are what you eat, and the food you take in is the petrol your engine runs on; you can’t get more basic than that. Fill a petrol-driven engine with diesel, and you get a disaster. At times I am astonished at the lengths people go to looking for a quick fix to their health problems, trying all manners of cures, always administered by others, before finally realizing the problem lies close to home and within their control. Have a good look at your diet, first; you may well find that the answer to your chronic tiredness is found in your very own daily menu.

Water

To most people, the word ‘diet’ relates to food only. Actually, the first thing to check on your menu is the water intake. Unless you drink at least 2 litres (4 pints) of plain water per day, you dehydrate yourself daily; in other words, your body is experiencing a drought and you remain in constant water overdraft day in, day out. If you are a keen coffee or black tea drinker or like your daily pint (or, as is more trendy nowadays, a couple of glasses of wine with dinner), you dehydrate yourself at an even more accelerated rate. Long term dehydration saps the energy reserves of the body and impairs its functioning. It makes sense when you consider we’re 70% water; every cell in our body is mainly composed of cellular fluid and all cells need a fluid environment in which to survive. If you feel like a shriveled plant, up your water levels significantly and watch how you blossom.

Sugar

The next thing to look at is sugar. It’s difficult to avoid sugar as it’s everywhere and in everything, including in such unlikely foods as ready soups, pizza and smoked salmon. You may be surprised to find how much sugar you consume per day. Add up the spoons of sugar in your tea, coffee and porridge; the croissants and cakes at work; the sandwich bread (yes, it contains sugar); the chocolate bar and can of coke for lunch; that one biscuit with the (sweetened) afternoon tea; the ready-made pasta meal with a glass of wine for dinner; pudding of course; and that utterly irresistible mint chocolate when sitting down to watch TV. Sugar is the most charming thief in the world. It gives so much instant pleasure, and without you noticing, it robs you mercilessly of energy. At times the effect is not visible until you are well and truly addicted, by which time withdrawal becomes very challenging. Sugar jump-starts your system throughout the day (coffee and black tea, by the way, have a similar effect); eventually, just like a car, your system gets tired of being jump-started so often, and it breaks down in protest.

Other things to look for in the diet which stress the body are large volumes of junk or processed food; too much bread and wheat; and alcohol. All three tend to constitute a large share of many people’s diets, and have a direct, negative effect on one’s energy levels.

The right kind of fuel

It may be that you have already decided to take these foods off your menu, but are still feeling unwell and lacking in energy. This could well be because it’s not only what you take out of the diet that matters, but also what you need to put in. In other words, not only do you need to stop filling your engine with diesel, you must actually switch to premium petrol instead. If you intend to change your diet in order to feel better, it’s crucial that you know what should go in, not just out.

Whilst many foods can qualify as healthy, I tend to find that most people suffer from a chronic lack of vegetables. Many see the 5-a-Day advice as a license to indulge in fruit and fruit juices, which we have been taught over the years to regard as healthy. Fruit are healthy and nutritious, but not as much as vegetables. Nutrient-wise, they are not an equal alternative to vegetables. They contain a fair amount of sugar, albeit natural, and a lot more so when concentrated in juice (which also lacks fibre). Also, if nature was allowed to take its course, we in the Northern hemisphere would not be enjoying so many fruit as we do between January to May or even June. From Nature’s point of view, fruit belong more in summer. In truth, the 5-a-Day campaign should have put special emphasis on vegetables, yet sadly it doesn’t. Vegetables are present year-round, are fibre-, mineral- and vitamin-rich, contain a lot of water, are easy to digest and utilize, and should constitute at least half of our daily food intake. This is a far call for many people, but even much lesser quantities of fresh, seasonal vegetables make a big difference.

Natural rhythms

Other than our diet, don’t forget the natural cycle of the seasons. Take your cue from the natural light available – in winter we are supposed to be less active and have a lot more sleep; vice versa in summer. Instead, in our modern lifestyles we maintain a hectic pace all year round and rarely get the amount of rest so crucial for our body to be able to cope and self-repair. Violating Nature’s basic laws is bound to carry a price tag. For some it will be higher; no one is affected in the same way. But most of us are affected in one way or another. If you are feeling chronically tired, you may not be taking heed of your natural clock, which tells you you’re over-doing it when in fact you should be switching off the engine.

Antibiotics abuse?

Finally, in my practice I have noticed that the medical history of many of my patients who suffer from chronic fatigue has been heavily strewn with antibiotics; often years of repeated doses to ‘correct’ some chronic condition. The chronic condition was never cured, but the devastating effect of long-term antibiotic treatment has left an indelible mark on the digestive system of these patients. They have more food sensitivities, a weaker digestion, chronic bowel trouble and as a result, a reduced ability to make the most of what they eat, of the petrol which drives them forward. Long-term use of the contraceptive pill exacerbates the problem. If you are looking for an answer to your troubles, this could be one more clue.

Up & Up

To end the year, I’d like to reassure you that you don’t have to feel tired all the time. There are ways around it, nutritionally and otherwise, and most of them are strictly down to you. So make it part of your New Year’s Resolutions to feel better next year. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

© Vardit Kohn, December 2005. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written consent.

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