If you feel like you’re always running low on gas, this is the challenge for you. (Photo: Corbis/Gary Waters)
If you’re having a personal energy crisis, you’re not alone: Fatigue is one of the most common complaints women bring to their doctor’s attention. But that doesn’t mean you should take your exhaustion sitting (or lying) down. Feeling constantly drained isn’t normal or acceptable; it’s a cry for help from your body and your mind.
Your energy shortage could mean a hidden medical or psychiatric condition is depleting your vim and vigor. Or, it could be a sign that vitality-robbing habits are sabotaging your get up and go. Fortunately, it’s possible to uncover the true source(s) of your exhaustion and find ways to break through your fatigue and reclaim your energy.
As a starting point, I recommend doing a seven-day fatigue-beating challenge — a preliminary intervention that addresses various factors that play a role in chronic exhaustion. It’s best to undertake this challenge during a week when you can lighten your usual schedule and responsibilities. Incorporate all eight strategies into your daily regimen for a full week then re-assess your exhaustion.
Here’s what to do:
- Keep a fatigue diary. Every day for a week, rate your previous night’s sleep, jot down what you eat and drink (and when you do it), note your physical activities and your stress level throughout the day, and track the ebb and flow of your energy, fatigue, and other symptoms (pain, digestive distress, breathing difficulties, and the like). You can use a spreadsheet or graph paper for this.
- Sleep solo. Even if you’re in a committed relationship, try sleeping alone during the challenge to prevent another person from affecting the quality of your shut-eye. Dedicate at least eight hours for sleep each night, in a cool, dark, and quiet room. At least 30 minutes before bed, turn off your computer and the TV, and charge your mobile phone in another room. Scan the bedroom for blinking or glowing lights (from the alarm clock, the DVD clock and timer, and so on) — turn these off or cover the lights.
- Stick with a clean diet. No processed foods for seven days! Consume only whole foods in their recognizable form — vegetables, fruits, 100 percent whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and lean protein. Drink minimal, if any, alcohol, and keep your caffeine intake low (don’t quit cold-turkey because you’ll get rebound headaches and more fatigue). Make sure you get plenty of magnesium (from nuts, seeds, and fish), iron (from organic red meats, poultry, fish, seaweed, soybeans, and fortified foods), and omega-3-fatty acids (from salmon, tuna, lake trout, and sardines, as well as flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil, and fortified foods). These nutrients play a critical role in energy production. Consuming probiotics, beneficial forms of bacteria that are present in foods such as yogurt and kefir and supplements, can also help in the energy department.
- Walk for 10 minutes a day. Two hours: that’s how long you’ll feel revved up after taking just a 10-minute walk, research has found. So make a deal with yourself to get moving for at least 10 minutes; commit to that, then see what happens. Chances are, once you start, you’ll feel so much better after 10 minutes that you’ll want to keep going.
- Check in with your body hourly. Set a timer to go off hourly and survey discomfort in your body. Stop what you’re doing, stand up, close your eyes, and focus your attention on the current state of your physical wellbeing. Starting at the top of your head and working down to your feet, examine the sensations in your body, looking for areas of tension, discomfort, or pain. Once you find them, consciously relax those areas, do stretching exercises, then avoid positions or behaviors that are contributing to the discomfort.
- Drink water all day. Dehydration is one of the most common causes of fatigue, crankiness, and foggy thinking. This may be because when you’re even mildly dehydrated, the fluid loss from your body causes a drop in blood volume, forcing your heart to work harder to push oxygen and nutrients through the bloodstream to your muscles and organs. For energy-boosting purposes, consume at least three liters daily during the fatigue-beating challenge. Try to space your intake evenly throughout the day, and drink more after exercise. Most of all, avoid going an hour without having fluids.
- Make a “to-don’t” list. Keep your usual “to-do” list and add to it as necessary — but for the next week, re-evaluate it at least once a day to see if: 1) you need to handle a given task, 2) if the task can wait until after the challenge, and 3) if the task can be simplified or made less time-consuming. If the task can be completed by someone else or it can wait seven days, move it to a “to-don’t” list. If it can be simplified, go for it. By setting limits and keeping your expectations of yourself realistic, you’ll protect your energy and lower your stress level.
- Make sense of your symptoms. After completing the seven-day challenge, compare your fatigue diary from day seven to the first two days of the challenge: How much did your fatigue and its related symptoms improve? Which symptoms went away, which decreased in severity, and which symptoms remain? Take a close look at the patterns: Are there consistent peaks and valleys in your energy level? Can you detect any factors that consistently make your exhaustion better or worse? Make a list of these patterns and schedule an appointment with your physician for a thorough physical examination and perhaps lab tests. Bring a copy of your symptom list and your fatigue diary to give your doctor a sense of your recent symptoms, your energy-fatigue cycles, and how your lifestyle habits may contribute to your fatigue. Armed with this information, hopefully you and your doctor can take a big stride toward ending your exhaustion and reigniting your energy.
Holly Phillips, MD, is a board-certified general internist in private practice in Manhattan. She is a medical contributor to CBS News, featured regularly on “CBS This Morning,” “CBS Evening News,” and “48 Hours,” and is a contributing editor for Prevention magazine. She is the author of the book “The Exhaustion Breakthrough.”
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