Fight Fatigue with Your Fork
With busy lives and hectic schedules fatigue is often a constant companion to modern life. But how and what we eat can help keep us from getting tired.
By Erik Strand published July 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Everyone from time to time experiences fatigue; for some it is an almost daily struggle. Even the sunniest disposition can cloud over when fatigue sets in: it can be a serious drag on your mood.
Broadly speaking, fatigue is simply mental or physical exhaustion. In many ways it is a normal phenomenon, a process that slows the body down at the end of the day and prepares us for sleep, or protects overworked muscles from possible injury. Too often however, fatigue is a negative force in our lives: at best an inconvenience, and at worst completely debilitating. Fortunately, though the exact science behind fatigue is in many ways poorly understood, there are some simple dietary changes we can make to help keep fatigue from getting us down.
Drink plenty of water. We've all been told a thousand times, but a lot of us still don't get enough H20 during the day. Mild dehydration is a common and often overlooked cause of fatigue. Dehydration can reduce blood volume and diminish blood flow to the organs, slowing down your brain -- and you along with it. Drink about 8 glasses of water a day, and don't wait until you're thirsty.
Eat breakfast. The brain is a fuel-hungry organ, using up to 30 percent of the day's calories. A good breakfast is important for refilling our energy stores, keeping lethargy at bay during the morning hours. This is especially true for children, who have a higher metabolism and naturally smaller energy reserves. Be sure to include carbohydrates at breakfast time. A whole grain muffin with peanut butter, a piece of fruit, and a glass of skim milk makes a good start to the day.
Eat protein and carbs in combination, especially at lunch. It's not your imagination: that drowsy, dopey feeling you get around 4pm is part of your brain's natural daily rhythms. Dr. Judith Wurtman, a pioneering food researcher at MIT, recommends eating carbohydrates and protein in tandem at lunchtime to fight the afternoon doldrums. Protein contains the amino acid tryptophan, precursor of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes a calm, relaxed feeling, which helps to fight emotional fatigue. Eaten in combination with protein, carbohydrates may boost the brain's intake of tryptophan. Protein rich foods also contain tyrosine, a precursor to the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, promoters of alertness, attention, and motivation.
"There's one group of people who are especially susceptible to late afternoon fatigue," says Wurtman, "and they're called 'women.'" Women often choose skimpy salads for their midday meal, leaving them at a loss for the nutrients they need. Opt instead for the fatigue-fighting team of lean protein sources and unrefined carbohydrates to elevate both energy and mood.
Use caffeine judiciously. Caffeinated beverages are one of the best ways to fight fatigue. Caffeine not only makes you feel more energized, it also increases alertness, reaction times, and ability to think clearly for up to three hours. Dr. Harris Lieberman, research psychologist for the US Army, reports that even if you're already rested, a single can of cola can produce improved results on tests of vigilance -- the ability to pay attention to a boring task for a long period of time. "But," he cautions, "If you're drinking 5 or 6 cups of coffee a day, that's probably too much." Too much caffeine can make you irritable and jittery, actually decreasing your performance on some tasks; caffeine too late in the day can cause insomnia. In some people, overuse of caffeine is associated with withdrawal symptoms like headaches. If caffeine's your thing, try a single cup in the morning, and a Diet Coke with lunch.
Get enough calories, but avoid big meals. While overeating is a serious problem for many folks (and can itself lead to fatigue), if you're an intensely active person or you're on a stringent diet, you may not be getting enough calories during the day. Everyone's needs vary: take care to consume enough calories for your gender, body type, and activity level. High-intensity exercisers should be especially sure to get enough protein.
Don't, however, take in all your calories in one or two daily feasts. Instead, eat five or six smaller meals during the day. To aid digestion, a full stomach draws blood to the belly and away from the brain, leaving you listless and less alert. Smaller meals also help to keep your insulin level more constant, avoiding the fluctuations of energy and mood associated with insulin swings.
Eat iron-rich foods. Iron enables blood to carry oxygen to the organs of the body. Deprived of adequate oxygen, the brain cannot function optimally, leading to lack of mental acuity and feelings of fatigue. Iron intake is not in general a problem for men, but it is not uncommon for women to have mild iron deficiency. If you suspect you're not getting enough iron, boost your intake with foods like lean red meat, liver, spinach, and apricots.