Power Up!

When the body’s rhythms are thrown off by a busy lifestyle that features too little rest
and erratic nutritional habits, energy levels can plummet. But by following some
simple fatigue- fighting advice, you can unlock the secrets to free and abundant
energy— and empower yourself to soar once more.

By Patrick Dougherty

January 2009

It’s Monday morning. The alarm clock buzzes and you groggily wake up. Why do you feel exhausted? You sleepwalk through your morning routine in a hazy fog until you guzzle some coffee and eat a donut. Suddenly, you feel human again.

Several hours later, you’ve crashed back into lethargy. A candy bar from the vending machine provides a quick boost, but by afternoon you’re nodding off at your desk—so you grab one more cup of coffee. Later that night, the caffeine catches up with you. You toss restlessly in bed, unable to sleep. The next morning you awake feeling drained once again.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2007 Sleep in America poll found that 59% of women wake up feeling unrefreshed after a night’s sleep, with 43% experiencing lingering tiredness that interferes with daily activities. While this fatigue may seem a harmless annoyance, it seriously hinders all aspects of a person’s life. Without abundant energy, inspiration diminishes—enjoyment turns to apathy and our greatest potential achievements go unrealized.

Irregular Rhythm
The reasons for fatigue can vary widely from one person to the next; think of the sleep-deprived new parent versus an ailing 80-year-old. For many people, though, it’s all about rhythm—or a lack of it.

That’s the theory offered by Frank Lipman, MD, director of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City and author of Spent: End Exhaustion and Feel Great Again (Simon & Schuster). He says that people lived for thousands of years in harmony with nature’s cycles—the rising and setting of the sun, the changes of the seasons. “As a result, those rhythms became imprinted in our genes,” Lipman explains. “We know from science that we have more than 100 body rhythms which are part of every aspect of our body’s inner workings and that we have internal body clocks which govern these rhythms.”

Stress & Fatigue

If you’ve ever been under sustained stress, especially work stress (and if you haven’t, please tell us your secret), you know how fatiguing it can be. The bad news about stress is that there isn’t an off switch in sight. Among participants in a 2006 survey conducted by ComPsych, a human resources firm, 55% reported high stress levels, with 33% saying that they missed three to six days a year to stress-related issues. And it would be hard to believe that anything has improved since then, especially in today’s turbulent economy.

Why is stress so tiring? Blame the adrenal glands, which respond to stress by producing hormones that put all the body’s systems on high alert. That works just fine when stress is intense but short-lived, such as having to swerve away from a head-on collision. When stress is constant, however, the adrenal glands just keep churning out hormones—until they finally give up in exhaustion.

Getting a grip on stress requires being aware of what challenges you. “Identify the stresses to which you are particularly vulnerable and figure out if you can do anything about them,” says Erika Schwartz, MD, author of Natural Energy (Putnam). Learn to let go of things you can’t do anything about. Schwartz says to put troublesome issues into a mental drawer—and then shut the drawer.

Traditional healers the world over use adaptogenic plants to nourish the adrenal glands and bring the body back into healthy balance. The most famous of these herbs, Panax ginseng, also known as Korean or red ginseng, is known for increasing stamina and endurance, while American ginseng provides gentler stimulation. Ashwaganda, used in India’s Ayurvedic medicine, is known to both fight stress and promote a sense of calm. Siberia has produced two first-rate adaptogens: Eleuthero has increased physical and mental performance under stress in numerous studies and rhodiola has shown an ability to fight both depression and the effects of aging.

Aromatherapy also uses herbs, in the form of essential oils, to fight the effects of stress. Such calming scents—which include lavender, orange, lemon and ylang-ylang—can be either diffused into the air or used in massage therapy, itself an ideal stress-buster.

In addition to herbs, certain vitamins and minerals help support proper adrenal function. “Vitamin C is an extremely important anti-stress nutrient that can help decrease the fatigue symptoms that often accompany excessive levels of anxiety and stress,” says natural medicine authority Susan Lark, MD, author of The Chemistry of Success (Bay Books). She says that C “is critical for the structural support of the small arteries and veins in the adrenal glands.” Lark also recommends calcium, taken at night with its mineral partner magnesium, to soothe emotional irritability and to promote restful sleep. —Lisa James

The 24/7 nature of today’s fast-paced world—in which people are bathed in artificial light, surrounded by electronic stimulation and generally disconnected from the day/night cycles that ruled our ancestors’ lives—can cause one’s internal clock to falter. “When we are out of sync with these rhythms, body functions become imbalanced and have to use more energy to function normally,” Lipman says. “It is like swimming upstream—it takes much more work and it saps our energy.”

Fatigue can be a sign of serious illness, so if it is persistent or severe visit a qualified health professional. But if your checkup checks out and what’s ailing you is a garden-variety case of pepetual weariness, there’s no reason to accept it as your fate. Start by considering these common fatigue causes, along with their natural solutions.

Sweet Sleep
It’s a vicious cycle: Insufficient sleep leads to low energy, which is associated with an increase in stress and an overuse of stimulants like caffeine. In turn, these sleep-deprivation side effects conspire to further interfere with healthy sleep patterns. “Most Americans actually sleep for too short of a time, or do not reach deep-enough levels of relaxation while sleeping,” says Brett Carr, DC, an assistant professor of clinical sciences at the University of Bridgeport College of Chiropractic in Connecticut. “As a result, Americans are fatigued for the most obvious reason—lack of restorative sleep.” In the quest to rediscover energy, sleep is a logical starting point.

To get back on track, follow some commonsense rules. Take a “media break” before bedtime—turn off the laptop early and ban TV in the bedroom. If you exercise in the evening, finish at least three hours before you plan on going to sleep, so your body has a chance to wind down.

Ease up on caffeine, not just in coffee, but also in the form of tea, cola, chocolate and other stealth sources. Establish a regular bedtime and stick with it both during the week and on the weekend.

Natural supplements can not only help instill a healthy sleep rhythm, but may promote the deep, gratifying sleep that so effectively recharges your batteries. The herbs passionflower, valerian and chamomile have long been highly regarded for promoting restful slumber. Lactium, the soporific substance in warm milk, is now available in supplement form. Melatonin, a hormone that regulates one’s internal clock, is known for stabilizing the sleep-wake cycle. The neurotransmitter amino acid GABA, when taken supplementally, can also help coax restless minds and bodies into dreamland.

Food Fuel
Sleep-related fatigue is exacerbated by processed junk foods. In the morning this could mean a toaster tart or sugary cereal bar; in the afternoon, any number of packaged snack foods. Nutritionally deficient foods such as these are loaded with refined carbohydrates. Like throwing twigs on a fire, these simple carbs flare up, providing a quick surge of energy. But almost as quickly as they ignite, such carbs burn out—and energy levels come crashing down.

“Avoiding processed foods will boost energy levels almost immediately,” says Carr. But what are the right foods for energy? “The most important nutritional building blocks to boost energy are found in whole foods,” Carr continues. “The underappreciated and much maligned [complex] carbohydrate is actually the key to the whole thing. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans are not only heart-healthy and cancer-fighting, but they are the primary fuel the brain and muscles use for energy. In addition, lean meats, seafood and healthy fats provide the nutritional basis for an energetic and longevity producing diet.”

Whole foods offer the benefit of having a low glycemic index, which means that they provide steady, balanced energy—a slow-burning log to counter the flare-and-fizzle of junk foods’ dry twigs. Though hectic mornings for most people do not include time for a leisurely whole-food breakfast, convenient, tasty solutions abound. Whip up a revitalizing smoothie supercharged with protein powder and a liquid whole food-based multivitamin, or grab a natural energy bar—the best will feature a blend of whole foods, low-glycemic index and controlled-release carbs for sustained energy.

Supercharged Supplements
Of all life’s fatiguing factors, none is more significant than nutrition. Without vitamins and minerals, the body simply cannot generate energy. “Vitamins and minerals help enzymes break down proteins, carbs and fats for energy,” explains Lonnie Lowery, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Akron, Ohio. “If the body is a car and food is fuel, then vitamins and minerals are the spark plugs that let us use that fuel.” Without those spark plugs to catalyze energy-liberating reactions, the body sputters to a screeching halt.

B vitamins, for example, have a well-deserved reputation as “energy vitamins” because of their role as coenzymes. As coenzymes, B vitamins enable enzymes to function properly, including enzymes that transform the energy stored in foods to energy we can actually use.

Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is another coenzyme nutrient that creates energy on the most fundamental level. Mitochondria—the tiny powerhouses within each cell—use CoQ10 as fuel. Unfortunately, as we age our bodies lose the ability to synthesize CoQ10 and vitality suffers. While eating organ meats (a dietary source of CoQ10) can help compensate for this natural decline, most find CoQ10 in supplement form to be far more palatable.

The most recognizable fatigue-inducing nutritional deficiency is that of the essential mineral iron. Also known as anemia, iron defi­ciency robs the body of its ability to carry oxygen in blood, leading to tiredness. For the one in five women who is iron-deficient, supplementation often provides a quick, easy remedy. (Because supplemental iron isn’t recommended for everyone, have your iron levels checked by a health practitioner first.)

Just as nutrient deficiencies can sap you of vigor, intake of the right nutrients—especially as specialized supplements—can elevate energy levels to new heights. “I suggest a green powdered drink, basically a powdered fruit and vegetable drink, for phytonutrients,” says Lipman. “A good multivitamin covers the other nutrients that are possibly depleted.”

Lipman recommends whey protein powder in a morning smoothie (perfect if you can’t always find time for breakfast); soy protein is another good option, especially if you prefer plant-based protein. Adaptogens, including the herbs rhodiola and ginseng, help the body deal with stress—a major energy zapper.

Energizing Exercise
For peak energy levels, exercise with finesse—overexertion can worsen fatigue. Lipman recommends what he calls “restorative exercise” as a crucial part of his energy-boosting program.

“Restorative exercise differs from regular exercise because there are periods of recovery between periods of exertion,” Lipman explains. “When you push your body too hard it is another stress on the system and can deplete you over time. If you look at our ancient ancestors (or kids for that matter), they didn’t run on treadmills for an hour; they sprinted for a period to catch prey (or flee predators) and then stopped. I believe letting the body recover and restore while exercising is more appropriate for our genes.”

Regular exercise offers a whole bevy of energizing benefits. “Getting regular aerobic exercise is good for stress relief, maintaining proper blood sugar and increasing the hormones that improve mood,” says Carr. “Although it sounds counterintuitive, exercising will increase energy levels through both physical and psychological means.”

The busy world we live in tends to disrupt our rhythms, making it that much harder to tap into the energy our lives require. But by bringing our rhythms back into harmony with nature, we can synchronize with the universe’s greatest power source—and zestfully experience life to the fullest, every single day.

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