How many times a day do you hear someone complain of being exhausted or stressed? Maybe when a friend asks you how you’ve been, your standard reply is “busy” or even “tired.”
It’s a common complaint. This is particularly true at the end of the year when people are racing around like crazy, trying to get everything done before the holiday break or the start of the new year. Fatigue is disruptive, and it can make you feel less effective at work and less able to socialize and pursue your personal goals.
Fatigue and lack of energy are among the top complaints I hear at my clinic. But the good news is that by making a few changes in your daily schedule, you can access nearly unlimited energy to power your way through the dark winter months.
The first thing you have to know is that your body has a circadian rhythm, which means that your cells and systems function differently at different times of the day. This rhythm operates on a nearly 24-hour cycle and resets itself every morning when you first experience daylight. This rhythm helps regulate everything in your body including blood pressure, metabolism, hormone production, body temperature and cellular repair. Even the microbes in your gut operate on a cycle, with some types of bacteria active at night while others predominate in the daytime.
This is one reason why your body gets so confused when you cross time zones. When your schedule changes, every system in your body has to adjust. If you have recently experienced travel-related jet lag, you know that the symptoms go beyond difficulty sleeping. They include mental fogginess and irritability and digestive issues as well.
Many people operate in a kind of permanent jet lag in which they have one schedule during the week and another schedule on the weekend. You may do this, too, staying up late and sleeping in on the weekends, and even eating your meals later or at different times during your days off. Scientists call this “social jet lag” and it is a trigger for obesity and fatigue. When you stay up late on the weekends, you teach your body that it doesn’t need sleep until after midnight, so you’ll have residual insomnia and digestive trouble during the first half of the work week. People often find that when they shortchange themselves on sleep, they are less productive in their work, which makes them feel even more busy. When they feel overwhelmed, they are more likely to stay up late again. Getting to bed at the right time is the first step toward getting more energy.
By paying attention to your schedule, you can make simple changes that will drastically improve your focus at work and give you more energy during the day. You won’t need coffee or sweets to push you through your day if you:
Lack of sleep is the number one cause of fatigue, and most people don’t get enough sleep during the winter months. The shortest days of the year tend to be a time to engage in passive entertainment. We watch too much TV or rely on social media in the hours after sunset. You might think that this is helping you to relax after a long day at work. Instead, screen time often triggers insomnia. It delays the brain’s production of melatonin, which is a natural hormone that helps you fall asleep. The blue light emitted from screens tricks the brain into thinking it’s still daytime, and you are likely to stay awake until midnight or later and then have trouble falling sleep after you do shut out the lights.
READ MORE: Bedtime Routines For Adults
Instead, you should pick a bedtime that will give you 7 hours of sleep before the alarm goes off in the morning. Institute a screen curfew for 90 minutes before your bedtime. No TV, computer, smartphone or e-reader in the 90 minutes before bedtime. Instead, you can read a book, do some meditation, light chores around the house or take a bath. Within a few days, you will find yourself becoming naturally sleepy at the right time, and this will make getting out of bed in the morning much easier. You will wake up refreshed and ready to start a new day.
Most people don’t understand that the digestive tract has its own circadian rhythm. You have more glucose tolerance in the first half of the day than in the hours after noon. At night, your body becomes more insulin resistant and your digestion slows to a crawl. Unfortunately, many people skip breakfast, and sometimes eat just a small salad or protein shake at noon. If you do this, you might be reaching for snacks to get through the afternoon or sweetened coffee. You may be famished and shaky when you get home from work and start eating anything and everything.
This partial fasting during the first six hours of your day is contributing to your fatigue. This is the time to eat the whole foods that will power your system and give your body the nutrients it needs to form hormones and enzymes overnight. Eat only lightly for the evening meal and avoid snacking after dinner. A large meal in the evening will burden your digestive tract. It may interrupt your sleep and leave you groggy and bloated the next morning.
It’s easy to think about exercise as a means to get fit or trim a few pounds, but it is also a key means of insomnia prevention. The body uses your behavior to help decide what time of day it is. By moving your body in the first half of the day, you reinforce the body’s internal cues that it’s daytime. Exercise also increases energy if you do it every day. One study looked at sedentary people who suffered from consistent fatigue and found that consistent, low-intensity workouts reduced their feelings of fatigue by more than 60% and made them feel more energized throughout the day.1
A good time to engage in this moderate, daily exercise is first thing in the morning. Take a brisk 10 to 15-minute walk every morning, or take a short turn on that unused treadmill sitting in the corner. Do a few yoga poses if you like. You don’t have to kill yourself, just get yourself moving and breathing. My patients say this wakes them up better than a cup of coffee. Get your blood moving first thing every day and you will have more energy all day.
Every day I see people staring at their smart phones in public. Are they receiving an urgent text or message? Far from it. They are checking headlines and social media or they are playing games. We have taught ourselves to reach for our phones for a reliable shot of emotion, adrenaline or dopamine when we are bored. And yet, these texts and games and emails often make us feel more overwhelmed and less centered.
Try this instead. Whenever you have the urge to check your phone, you should instead take three deep breaths. Feel the breath in your body, and feel yourself relax. In Ayurveda, we say that prana builds energy. Prana means the breath, but it also refers to the vital life force. It creates the union between body and mind. After your three breaths, you can still reach for your phone, but you will have created a small buffer between the urge to distract yourself and the act itself.
This is the beginning of mindfulness and it will keep you from overstimulating yourself during the day. Mental overstimulation is a major cause for winter stress and fatigue. At this time of year, your mind and body both need activity to stay healthy, but they also need reflection and rest.
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1 Puetz, TW, O’Connor PJ, Dishman, RK. Effects of chronic exercise on feelings of energy and fatigue: a quantitative synthesis. 2006 Nov;132(6):866-76.
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