If you’re tired all the time, discouraged and have lost your spark you could be suffering from one of today’s most common problems – burnout.
It’s caused by a combination of factors – including stress, poor eating habits and juggling too much for too long, according to nutritionist Jack Challem, author of No More Fatigue: Why You’re So Tired and What You Can Do About It.
“There’s an epidemic of fatigue which is leaving people physically and emotionally spent and struggling to cope with life,” he says.
He believes that while fatigue has always been a major problem with an estimated one in three people suffering worldwide, it’s currently being exacerbated by the recession, which is ratcheting up stress levels.
“Many are so wrapped up in dealing with day-to-day pressures, they may not even realise they’re totally stressed out,” he says. “But that overdose of pressure has a price – it leaves us vulnerable to sleeplessness, low mood and anxiety.
“The commonest ways to self-medicate the resulting exhaustion is by fueling ourselves with caffeine and apparent quick-fix energy boosters like sugar-filled snacks or fast foods, and simply trying to push ourselves to work harder and longer.”
That further punishes our health, Challem believes, and puts us at risk of one of the most common hormone disorders – adrenal burnout, but one rarely diagnosed by doctors.
The adrenals are glands which pump out essential hormones to help us deal with stress, maintain the body’s energy, regulate the immune system and fluid levels, and keep blood pressure and sugar levels within a healthy range.
“Too much physical or emotional pressure, an excess of caffeine and a poor diet can contribute to causing an imbalance in our body and affect adrenal function,” Challem explains.
But, he says, by making small changes we can recover from burnout and regain our zest and enjoyment in life.
“If the recession has taught us anything it’s about the importance of saving money,” he says.
“The same guiding principle applies to energy. Our energy is finite, like our savings, so to live well with the health and vitality we all want, it’s essential we manage our personal energy resources as best we can.”
Follow his strategy to beating burn-out.
Adrenal exhaustion, says Challem, can result when we try to do too much in too little time and don’t allow sufficient space in our schedules for essential relaxation, restful sleep and the time to eat healthy foods.
The adrenals, located at the top of each of the kidneys, release hormones including adrenaline and cortisol (the long-term stress hormone).
“When faced with chronic stress, your body shifts from making adrenaline to cortisol,” he says. “Adrenal burnout occurs when you lose your ability to make protective cortisol which leads to exhaustion and fatigue.”
Common symptoms, he cites, include tiredness, weakness, listlessness, caffeine, sugar and salt cravings, and low blood pressure and light-headedness when standing up.
Irritability, nervousness and low mood as well as feeling unusually cold, stomach cramps and nausea can also be signs of adrenal burnout.
“A person may awake feeling tired even after sleeping eight or more hours,” says Challem.
“He or she may not feel completely awake until later in the morning or after consuming caffeine. Then energy levels dip during the afternoon, but the person may get a second wind between 6pm to 11pm, and won’t feel tired enough for sleep until much later.”
Beat the stress
It’s always advisable to consult a doctor to check whether you are suffering from adrenal problems.
Restoring normal adrenal function takes time – an average of four months to a year – according to Challem and involves improving diet and modifying lifestyle.
He also advises taking multi-vitamin supplements containing vitamin C and B, and a liquorice root supplement which may block the body’s breakdown of cortisol and to aid restoration of normal levels.
Caffeine and sugar are anti-energy foods, says Challem. They provide a brief boost but create a “roller-coaster” effect on energy and blood sugar levels and adversely affect sleep patterns.
“Reduce your intake. Brew weaker coffee, alternate a coffee with having a glass of water, try to switch to tea and then move to herbal teas,” he suggests.
He believes intake such as more than a five cups daily or a need for coffee in the afternoon or evening for an energy boost could indicate a significant dependence which may contribute to stress on the adrenal glands.
Power of protein
Make protein the centrepiece of meals including breakfast, says Challem, because it contains amino acids which are the building blocks for neurotransmitters in the brain which affect mood.
He suggests roughly one-third of the food on your plate should be protein and the other two-thirds should be one or two different vegetables, which will help stabilise blood sugar.
“Never skip breakfast as it forces your body to rely on adrenaline and cortisol, as does skipping meals,” he says.
Physical activity is key, says Challem, so aim for light activity for at least half an hour most days as this has been shown to raise people’s energy levels by about 20 per cent.
Research has also shown that every hour of sedentary behaviour increased the time it takes to fall asleep by about three minutes, he says.
Try to find inner peace by practising mindfulness – staying in the present rather than looking back on the past or trying to forecast the future.
“Mindfulness can help us to become less anxious and more focused, and allows us to be more controlled in our behaviour,” says Challem.
“Cultivate a psychological ‘reset button’ to remind yourself to take a break when you’re feeling too stressed – in effect to give yourself brief time-out.”
Then take a couple of minutes to breathe deeply or meditate.