Chronic stress: What to do when you’re tired all the time
HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull explores a common problem of modern life and offers some self-help solutions.
It’s not uncommon for people to say they feel ‘tired all the time’. This modern-day complaint is a sign we are over-stressed, over-stimulated and we find it a struggle to relax and recharge.
Despite technological advances and time-saving devices, our busy lives mean there still never seems to be enough time. There is always more to do and the feeling of being overwhelmed, overloaded and stressed can easily become part of our every day.
We are always switched on: we can be accessed anytime, anywhere by phone, text or email. And there is always something to think about or worry about or some other thing we could be doing whether we are lying in bed, driving to work or (supposedly) ’relaxing’ on holiday.
While the pressures we feel in our lives may be different depending on our personal situation, one thing we all have in common is how it is increasingly challenging to escape from the trap of being ‘busy’ and feeling tired all the time. Poor quality broken sleep, feeling run down and not being able to relax are just how life is for many of us.
To try and manage this tiredness and fatigue, some people take energy drinks, strong coffees, sugary drinks and snacks, or give themselves that internal pep talk to ‘harden up’. Or people may use alcohol as a ‘support’. These are not, however, good solutions —particularly in the long-term.
Sugary drinks and food only give a temporary energy burst and are unlikely to provide the nutrition your body needs to work at its best. While caffeine and stimulants have their place, if you feel like you need them to just function, something isn’t quite right.
Alcohol may indeed take the edge off, and even ‘knock you out’, but like caffeine it can affect the quality of your sleep.
So these ‘solutions’ can end up fuelling the very tiredness and fatigue you are trying to manage.
What is chronic stress doing to our bodies?
Your body is much like a car. It needs good food for fuel in the same way your car needs petrol. Your body needs to be active in the same way your car engine needs to be regularly turned over. Both your body and your car need looking after to help them perform at their best.
If you never service your car, drive with your pedal to the metal for quick acceleration, and unnecessarily rev the engine, it’s likely somewhere down the line you will have car trouble. You may be able to stem any major work temporarily by putting some super-fuel in it, kicking it and pushing it but sooner or later, something’s got to give.
In a similar fashion, many of us live our lives pushing our body to its limit and beyond, not allowing the time and space it needs to unwind and recover. A few hours kip doesn’t replace good quality sleep. ‘Convenient’ food isn’t necessarily a substitute for good quality food and constantly being on the go leaves little time to recharge.
The effects of stress
When you have a lot on your mind and feel stressed and pressured, your sleep may suffer. It may be that you don’t get enough sleep overall, you toss and turn all night or if you do get plenty of sleep, it may be poor quality. Having stress hormones, caffeine or alcohol circulating in your system when you head to bed can prevent your body from having a deep restful sleep so it’s hardly surprising you may wake up not feeling rested.
Anxiety and low mood
A busy full-on life can take its toll on how you feel, too. Feeling anxious, having a low mood or struggling with depression are all possible outcomes if you live a fast-paced, busy, stressful life.
Hormone dysregulation and body fat
There are two main hormones which your body produces in response to stress: adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are produced by the adrenal glands — small walnut-sized glands which sit above each of your kidneys. Your adrenal glands play an important role in helping metabolise food and regulating blood sugar levels, and have an impact on the function of the heart and digestive system.
There is a theory that because of the way so many of us now live — with constant stress and unbalanced lifestyles — some may struggle with a degree of reduced adrenal efficiency because of the pressure put on their adrenal glands to constantly pump out stress hormones all the time. This is referred to by some as ‘adrenal fatigue’. This is thought to result in (among other problems) extreme tiredness and fatigue as well as difficulty losing body fat.
Despite an increased interest in adrenal fatigue, as yet, there isn’t a specific set of tests or criteria which exists to be able to diagnose adrenal fatigue and most medical professionals consider it at this stage to be only a theory. It is an area where more research needs to be done.
Whether or not adrenal fatigue is able to be clinically diagnosed, the reality remains: if you are constantly tired and run-down, you need to take action and work out what you can do to help yourself feel better because running on empty is not the same as living a quality, healthy life.
What can we do to better manage stress and fatigue?
- Talk to your GP or a qualified healthcare professional who knows you and your medical history. Any underlying health issues can then be considered. Coeliac disease, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, iron deficiency anaemia and chronic fatigue syndrome are just a few examples of health issues you may need to rule out before identifying whether your tiredness is a result of being busy and stressed.
- Look at your lifestyle and see what you can do to improve things for yourself.
While there is no magic solution, here are some strategies I have found that have helped people to feel better and have more energy.
Be food wise
Stabilise your blood sugar levels
- Enjoy regular healthy meals and snacks: Avoid going for hours on end without eating.
- Go low-GI: Opt for healthy food choices which release their energy slowly. Oats, low-fat milk, low-fat yoghurt and wholegrain breads and pulses (such as lentils or cannellini beans) are great options.
- Include protein-rich foods at mealtimes and for snacks.
- Slash the sugar: Avoid sugary drinks and foods that have added sugar.
Optimise your nutrition
Falling short of vital nutrients can mean that you are more likely to feel tired and run down.
- Eat more real, unprocessed whole foods.
- Aim to have four or five servings of vegetables each day and two servings of fruit: A variety of colours is best. They are packed with vitamins and minerals which support your body to work at its best.
- Boost your B vitamins: Foods packed with B vitamins help your body to release energy from food. Opt for wholegrain breads, cereal and crackers. Enjoy plenty of green vegetables and include a variety of lean meats, fish, seafood and eggs throughout the week. Nuts and seeds are great, too — enjoy a small handful as a snack or add to salads.
- Iodine is vital to help your thyroid gland work properly and many New Zealanders aren’t getting enough. Where you use salt always choose iodised salt. Include iodine-rich foods every day such as fish and seafood, eggs and seaweed eg. nori sheets which you use to make sushi. Slice seaweed sheets and add to salads or use them to make wraps.
- Get one-on-one nutrition advice from a qualified dietitian or registered nutritionist if you want your diet analysed to see where you are falling short. There is a huge amount you can do to optimise your nutrition and to manage nutritional deficiencies.
- Eat slowly, mindfully: Sit down to eat and chew your food properly before you swallow. Try to avoid speedily gobbling your food down on the run.
Look at what you drink
Cut back on stimulants
While coffee and tea have their place, if you are feeling wired and tired, these drinks may be contributing to your problem. Look to cut back to a couple of cups a day and then try going for a month or two without any at all and just see how you feel. For some people it seems to make all the difference.
Take a break from alcohol
Alcohol can impact on the quality of your sleep, depletes your body of vitamin B1 and can have a profound effect on how you feel and your overall mental health. Take a break from alcohol for a month or so and see how you feel. If you feel that is just impossible, it may be time to reflect on the role of alcohol in your life — there are other ways to cope, manage and reward yourself which are much better for you.
Prepare for quality sleep
Good quality sleep can make all the difference to how you feel. Allow yourself time to unwind before bed. Turn the TV off, turn the lights down, have a bath or a shower or find your own way to relax and detach from the busy day you have had.
Rethink your exercise
If you are into intensive exercise and find you feel exhausted for days after a workout, it might be worth looking to swap or trade at least some of your high-intensity sessions for activities which encourage you to slow down, stretch and focus on your breathing. If you are already over-producing stress hormones by running around all day, it is worth looking to counter-balance that by creating time and space to allow your body to return back to a relaxed state. Running 20km or forcing yourself to do a high-impact exercise class when you feel on the verge of collapse may do you more harm than good.
This is not an excuse to skip exercise and become a couch potato, more a suggestion to look at the way you are exercising and see if your body benefits from changing your usual training style for a while.
Manage your expectations
There is always more you could do, always something else to chase, somewhere you could be…but this constant drive to do more and be more can exhaust you and stop you from enjoying the present moment as it is. You don’t have to be all things to all people. Part of your journey to fighting fatigue may be learning to say no, prioritising and managing the expectations you have of yourself. Find your stresses and deal with them and if needed, get help.
Take time out
Phones, emails and engaging in social media encourage addictive behaviour. Find a way to enjoy time and space without needing to check in with everyone else. Train yourself to be OK with taking time out from the chaos.
Learning to breathe correctly is also important. Slow and steady diaphragmatic breathing can help slow your heart rate, reduce feelings of stress and help you to feel calm.
Spend time outside
Exposing your skin and eyes to light plays an important role in regulating the amount of vitamin D your body makes and it affects your mood and sleep. Make sure you spend time outside every day and enjoy the natural environment. Appreciate the world around you. And surround yourself with people who make you feel good — that helps, too.
Change your thinking to feel less stressed!
Louise Thompson, author of The Busy Woman’s Guide to High Energy Happiness, says changing the way we think can help to beat fatigue.
“At school we are taught what to think, but not how to think. And how we think determines how life unfolds for us so actually it’s pretty important! It’s crucial to know that not all the thoughts in your head are truth. Believing everything we think can lead us to be overwhelmed, and a frazzled exhausted mess! Our energy goes where our thoughts go, so learning some principles of effective thought management is essential to a balanced happy life. Here are two important fundamentals:
1. Resentment is an energy killer
Remember that everything after breathing is a choice. Drop using the words “have to”, “need to” and “must” and substitute the word “choice”. “I am choosing to go pick up the kids from school”. “I am choosing to make a really complicated dinner when I am tired”, “I am choosing to prioritise cleaning over exercise”. When we use the word “choose” it brings us back into our own power. We get clear about the choices we really are making. We can own them or change them from a place of empowerment. Resentment comes from believing we have no choice (“I have to work late”), and resentment sucks our energy like nothing else. Drop the resentment by fully owning your choices and feel your energy surge.
2. Pay as much attention to the quality of thoughts you put into your mind as the quality of food you put into your mouth
It never ceases to amaze me how clients will invest a huge amount of time and money in sourcing the best meat and veggies but spend absolutely no effort at all in the quality of the thoughts they put into their mind. Thoughts that drive low self-esteem, body image issues, unhappiness, demotivation. I call these thoughts ‘Junk Food Thoughts’ and I discuss the 10 most common and how to get over them in my book. Thoughts like “I’m not good enough” or “It needs to be perfect” and so on that drive your mind all day is the equivalent of eating junk food for breakfast, lunch and dinner week-in, week-out. Overcoming negative thought patterns and feeding your mind healthy thoughts is the single biggest thing you can do to be healthier and happier.”