Our complex lives can take a toll on our health and wellbeing. But with HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull’s simple solutions, you can add ‘stress less’ to your to-do list!
When people ask how you are, is “I’m tired” your automatic reply? This complaint is often a warning sign that we’re overstressed and overstimulated, and that we’re finding it difficult to relax and recharge our bodies and minds.
Although modern technology is giving us more and more tools to enhance our productivity, our increasingly busy lives mean we never seem to have enough time. Thanks to our ‘smart’ gadgets, we’re always switched on: We can be accessed anywhere and anytime by phone, text or email. So whether we’re lying in bed, driving to work or ‘relaxing’ on holiday, we’re usually thinking or worrying about something else.
When there’s always more to do, disabling feelings of anxiety and an energy-zapping sense of being overwhelmed can easily become part of every day. Everyone’s personal situation involves different pressures, but we all have one thing in common: an understanding of how increasingly challenging it is to escape the trap of being ‘busy’ and feeling tired all the time. For many of us, sleeping badly, feeling rundown and being unable to relax have become seemingly inevitable aspects of life.
Some people try to manage this extreme fatigue by gobbling snacks or gulping energy drinks, strong coffees or sugary beverages. Others give themselves that internal pep talk to ‘toughen up’ or rely on the ‘support’ of alcohol. Unfortunately, these are poor remedies, particularly in the long run.
Sugary drinks and food provide only a fleeting surge of energy and are unlikely to give your body the nutrition it needs to function at its best. Caffeine and other stimulants are also unhealthy quick fixes.
If you feel you need them to simply function, some aspect of your life is out of whack. Alcohol certainly takes the edge off, dulling your senses and even knocking you out, but, like coffee, it can wreak havoc on your sleep. Such ‘solutions’ can aggravate the very tiredness you’re trying to manage — fuelling, rather than quenching, the inevitable burnout.
What does chronic stress do to the body?
Like any sophisticated machine, your body needs proper care to perform at its peak: the right fuel, in the form of nourishing foods, and regular maintenance, in the form of physical activity.
If you continually push your ‘engine’ to the max, unnecessarily rev it and never service it, you’re likely to have trouble. You may be able to postpone any major repairs — temporarily — by filling up on superfuel (such as copious cups of coffee) and kicking or pushing it, but sooner or later, something’s got to give. A few hours’ kip is no replacement for restorative sleep, ‘convenient’ food is no substitute for fresh wholefood, and being constantly on the go leaves your body little time to recharge.
If your unforgiving lifestyle is taking your body to its limits and beyond, and failing to give it time and space to unwind and recover, its overworked mechanisms are bound to suffer.
The strain of stress
If you have a lot on your mind and feel pressured and stressed to get more done (and faster!), your sleep is probably suffering. Tossing and turning all night stops you from getting enough sleep, and if you do manage to catch plenty of Zs, they may be unsatisfactory. When you head to bed with stress hormones, caffeine or alcohol circulating in your system, you can’t fall into a deep, restful sleep, so you’re likely to wake up feeling tired and edgy.
Anxiety and low mood
Endless busy days can take their toll on the way you feel. The consequences of living a fast-paced, stressful life can include anxiety, low mood or even clinical depression.
Hormone problems and body fat
Stress forces your body’s adrenal glands to produce the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These two walnut-size glands sit on top of your kidneys. Your adrenals not only play a key role in helping metabolise food and regulating blood-sugar levels, but also have an impact on your heart function and digestive system.
Relentless stress and unbalanced lifestyles can see some of us struggle with a degree of reduced adrenal efficiency. Some health professionals refer to this syndrome as ‘adrenal fatigue’; they think that the pressure on these glands to constantly pump out stress hormones may result in debilitating exhaustion and difficulty in losing body fat, among other problems.
It’s important to note that at this stage, most of the medical community consider adrenal fatigue to be only a theory, as it’s an area that demands more research. Despite our increased awareness of adrenal fatigue, doctors don’t yet have a specific set of tests or criteria to help them diagnose this condition.
Still, our inability to clinically identify adrenal fatigue doesn’t discount the fact that if you’re constantly tired and rundown, you need to take action. Work out what’s going to help you feel better, because if you’re running on empty, you’re unable to live a healthy, rewarding life.
Drink to your health
Keep stimulants to a minimum
Tea and coffee can be handy pick-me-ups on occasion, but a glut of these beverages may be contributing to your feeling wired and tired. Cut back to a couple of cups a day, and then try having a caffeine-free month or two to see how you feel. For some people, this makes all the difference.
Take a break from alcohol
Drinking can disrupt sleep and deplete your body of vitamin B1, which supports the nervous system. Alcohol can also have a negative impact on your overall wellbeing and mental health.
Give the grog a rest for about a month to see if things improve. If you feel that’s an impossible ask, it may be time to reflect on the role that alcohol plays in your life. There are much healthier ways to cope with life, manage stress and reward yourself.
Prepare for quality sleep
A solid eight hours’ sleep can make you feel so much better. Give yourself time to unwind before bed: Switch off the telly, dim the lights or have a soothing bath or shower. You’ll soon find your own way to relax and leave that busy day behind you.
Rethink your workouts
If you’re into intensive exercise, but are now exhausted for days after a workout, you may need to press pause. When you’re on the verge of collapse, running 20km or forcing yourself through a high-impact exercise class may do you more harm than good.
Try swapping at least some of your power workouts for gentler activities that encourage you to slow down, stretch and focus on your breathing. If you’re already overproducing stress hormones by running around all day, you need to counteract that perpetual motion: Create time and space to allow your body to relax.
This advice isn’t an excuse to skip exercise and become part of the couch; it’s an opportunity to see whether your body benefits from loosening the grip on your training reins for a while.
Manage your expectations
You don’t have to be all things to all people. Yes, you could take on another task, but the constant drive to do more can exhaust you and stop you from enjoying the present. Part of your approach to fighting fatigue may be learning to say no, so you can prioritise and be realistic about what you can achieve. Acknowledge your stresses and deal with them, and if you need help, seek it out.
Take time out
Staying connected by way of phone, email and social media can be addictive. Find a way to enjoy yourself without feeling the need to check in with everyone else; it’s okay to take a breather. In fact, it’s essential to learn how to breathe correctly. Slow and steady diaphragmatic breathing can help slow your heart rate, reduce stress and promote calm.
See the light
Exposing your skin and eyes to natural light enables your body to regulate its production of vitamin D. Light also affects your body clock and hence your mood and sleep. Spend time outdoors every day, enjoying the natural environment. Appreciate the world around you, and try to surround yourself with people who make you feel good.
Be food smart
How to eat for lasting energy
Enjoy regular healthy meals and snacks: Avoid going for hours on end without eating.
Go low GI: Opt for foods that release their energy slowly to keep blood-sugar levels stable. Oats, low-fat milk, low-fat yoghurt, wholegrain breads and legumes (such as lentils, chickpeas and cannellini beans) are great options. Try these ideas for fast, fibre-rich legume recipes:
Pump up the protein: Include high-protein foods at mealtimes and whenever you have a snack.
Slash the sugar: Avoid foods and drinks that contain added sugar.
Optimise your nutrition
Falling short of key nutrients can easily make you feel overly tired and rundown.
Be natural: Include more real, unprocessed wholefoods in your eating plan.
Go for two and five: Aim to eat two daily serves of fruit and five daily serves of vegies — the more colourful, the better. Fresh produce is packed with vitamins and minerals that support your mind and body to work at their best.
Boost your B-group: Foods full of B vitamins help your body release energy from food. Pile your plate with green vegetables, and eat a range of lean meats, fish, seafood and eggs throughout the week. It’s also important to opt for wholegrain versions of breads, cereals and crackers. Nuts and seeds are great, too; snack on a small handful (30g) or toss them into salads and stir-fries.
Keep an eye on iodine: Iodine is essential to proper thyroid-gland function, and many Aussies aren’t getting enough. Include iodine-rich foods in your diet: Enjoy fish, seafood and eggs. Seaweed is a good vegetarian source of iodine. Slice nori sheets into salads, or use them to add crunch and flavour to wraps.
Reboot your diet: If you want to find out where your eating habits are letting you down, have an accredited practising dietitian analyse your diet. You can optimise your nutrition and manage deficiencies in many simple and practical ways.
Eat slowly and mindfully: Sit down to eat each meal, and chew your food properly before you swallow. Focusing on the aroma, flavour and texture of every mouthful can make meals more enjoyable and satisfying. Always try to avoid throwing your food down on the run.
How to manage stress and fatigue
Talk to your doctor or a qualified health-care professional who knows you and is familiar with your medical history. He or she can then look into any underlying health issues. Coeliac disease, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, iron-deficiency anaemia and chronic-fatigue syndrome are just a few of the problems you may need to rule out before identifying whether your tiredness is a direct result of being busy and stressed.
Take a good look at your lifestyle to see how you can improve things. Remember: There’s no magic bullet, so try some of the strategies on these pages to start feeling less stressed and more energised!