One in five of us complain of tiredness at any one time, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and for one in 10 of us it’s a chronic problem. There are lots of factors that contribute to fatigue, says naturopathic consultant Martin Budd, but growing older need not be one of them. “Old age is not a disease,” he says. “Eating sensibly and controlling our stress and life-style sufficiently wisely should enable us to avoid exhaustion. Yet age is often seen as an explanation for the symptoms of chronic fatigue.” If you’ve been feeling more tired than usual recently, here are Martin’s tips for restoring your lost energy.
Cut down your stress
While a little stress helps to keep you on your toes, long-term stress can leave you feeling fatigued. It’s not just that stress is emotionally draining, it exhausts the body too, says Martin. When we experience stress, two glands that sit on top of our kidneys, known as the adrenal glands, release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. “The adrenals can become exhausted when our stress load exceeds their capacity to recover from stress,” he says. “The ‘dripping tap’ variety of stress can be more destructive than a sudden shock.”
Although adrenal exhaustion, or insufficiency, isn’t something that medical doctors test for, there are tests available and lots of complementary practitioners use them for patients suffering with fatigue. Genova Diagnostics does a simple saliva test called the Adrenal Stress Profile, costing £75 – go to www.gdx.net or phone 020 8336 7750.
It may help to identify the sources of stress in your life and think about ways to gain more control of them. Sharing problems with family and friends can be helpful and, of course, exercise is a great stress buster too. “Whole body exercise like walking, swimming and cycling are ideal,” says Martin. “Pilates is excellent too, as it combines aspects of yoga with breathing and posture.”
Supplements are also available to support the adrenal system. However, it’s best to see a registered practitioner, such as a naturopath, who can arrange for your adrenal function to be tested and prescribe supplements that are right for you at the correct dosage.
Beat the morning blues
It’s important not to assume that, just because you feel dreadful when you wake up, you aren’t getting enough sleep. “Very often it’s caused by a dip in blood sugar during the night,” says Martin. “Some people have their tea at six o’clock then don’t eat again until midday the next day. It’s not surprising they feel awful. The overnight fast wipes them out. I often say to people who wake up feeling awful that they should wake up at 2am and have a meal. They think I’m crazy, but after a few weeks they feel so much better. Another way to reduce the night fast is to have a late supper and early breakfast, preferably something protein based.”
Cut down sugar and carbs
There has been a lot of talk in the media recently about sugar and its role in fueling obesity. According to Martin, our high sugar and carbohydrate intake is also one of the factors driving our fatigue epidemic. “The modern British diet is high in carbohydrates because they are filling, tasty and cheap, while protein foods like meat and fish can be quite expensive,” says Martin. “We also eat and drink far too much sugar.”
One reason we love carbohydrates and sugar so much is that they actually boost our energy in the short term. They are easily broken down by the body and make your blood sugar levels rise quickly, giving you a temporary lift. The problem is that your body responds by releasing the hormone insulin to bring the level down again. Before you know it your blood sugar levels are dipping again. It’s actually your adrenal glands that are responsible for bringing your blood sugar level back up again so – as with too much stress – seesawing blood sugar levels places extra strain on them.
One way to avoid this is to try and have protein three or four times a day, as protein foods don’t make our blood sugar levels surge in quite the same way. Good sources of protein include: meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, tofu, soya milk, beans and dairy products. “You may also find that having three or four small meals throughout the day helps,” says Martin. “This will stabilise your blood sugar and take the pressure off your adrenal system.”
Get yourself tested
Sometimes fatigue can be caused by a medical problem so, if you are suffering with chronic tiredness it’s a good idea to go along to your GP, explain how you are feeling and get checked out. “Fatigue can be caused by thyroid problems or a deficiency in iron or Vitamin B12,” says Martin. “Don’t be afraid to request tests for these things, particularly if you remember that six months ago you felt okay and now you don’t."
When you get the test results, ask for copies and file them away. Even if you are found to be within a healthy range for something, it’s important to ask, ‘Where am I in the range?’. If for example, the normal range is 12-22 and you’re 12.3, then alarm bells should ring. If you are having symptoms that include fatigue it suggests that you would function better at, say, 15 or 16.
“Don’t be fobbed off with, ‘At your age what do you expect’,” adds Martin. “Menopause is a major upheaval, but we should expect to feel fit well into our 80s.”
To find a registered naturopath near you got to www.naturopaths.org.uk or phone 01458 840072.
Is there a problem?
These medical problems, can all cause fatigue. See your GP if you experience any of the symptoms outlined below – they can do simple tests for all the conditions listed.
Iron deficiency anaemia (lack of iron) – this is one of the commonest causes of fatigue. You may also notice shortness of breath and a pale complexion. “Make sure you request a ferritin test as this shows how much stored iron the body has to draw on, not just how much is in the blood,” suggests Martin.
Underactive thyroid – your GP can do a blood test to check your thyroid hormones. As well as fatigue, you may notice other symptoms, such as sensitivity to cold, weight gain, constipation and depression.
Coeliac disease – this is a common digestive condition caused by a reaction to gluten. Other symptoms may include: diarrhoea, bloating and wind, stomach pain and weight loss. It’s thought that 90 per cent of sufferers don’t know they have it.
Diabetes – fatigue is one of the main symptoms of diabetes. Other symptoms include feeling very thirsty, urinating frequently and weight loss.
Vitamin B12 deficiency – as with iron deficiency, this can cause anaemia. You may also suffer with breathlessness.
Depression – this can make you feel extremely fatigued. You may also feel sad, hopeless and have lost interest in things you used to enjoy.
"I got my life back”
These days Fiona Green from Brentwood, Essex, is full of energy, but this wasn’t always the case.
“I spent years waking every morning feeling I had to literally drag my body out of bed,” says Fiona, 46. “I’d survive the day, but after work I would come home at about 6.30pm and sleep for a while just to recharge and get through the evening. I visited my GP who did numerous tests but I never received a full diagnosis. It was only when I went to see a naturopath that I felt someone pinpointed exactly what was wrong with me. A number of blood tests and saliva tests were carried out and I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. I began taking supplements to support my adrenals and thyroid. It took a while but eventually I started to feel like I had got my life back. I had endless energy and was no longer dragging my body around all day. Today, I am still taking supplements to support my adrenals. I’m finally living life to the full and busy planning my wedding for later this year.”