Want to beat the February blahs? Simple lifestyle changes, such as exercise, good nutrition, and vitamins and herbs, can increase energy and lift our spirits.
The February blahs can lead many people to feel low on energy. There are many natural approaches to improving energy, but what works for you has more to do with the underlying cause of your energy loss than with any magic you will find in a pill.
Lack of exercise
Sitting around all day is not what humans were built to do. We are made to move, with muscles and joints designed to be used regularly! Exercise improves blood and oxygen flow to our cells, helps us to balance blood sugar, alleviates stress, and supports proper hormone balance. Go without exercise for too long, and you’ll feel your energy levels drop.
Health Canada recommends that adults participate in a mix of aerobic and strength exercise for at least 2.5 hours per week, every week. That breaks down to at least 30 minutes a day on at least five days of the week, a manageable minimum for most people as long as it is purposefully planned into their daily routine.
It’s a well-known cliché, but for the most part it’s true: we are what we eat. If we eat a diet depleted in nutrients, we’re bound to feel depleted eventually. Your body needs nutrients such as B-complex vitamins and magnesium to produce energy, but levels of these can be quite low in overprocessed, overcooked, or refined foods.
Processed foods, particularly refined carbohydrates, can also send your body on a bit of a sugar roller coaster of highs and lows (the infamous sugar crash) throughout the day, which can leave you feeling tired, unfocused, and irritable.
Another cause of poor nutrition is a diet that is too restrictive, where too many food groups are avoided and/or the variety of foods eaten is slim. These kinds of dietary imbalances eventually cause one or more nutrient deficiencies.
Although avoiding certain foods or food groups is often required due to allergies, intolerances, or ethical/religious beliefs, it is crucial to balance this by eating as wide a variety of other foods as possible. Learn which nutrient deficiencies you may risk because of your dietary avoidance, and learn how to top these up with appropriate substitute foods (ideally, if possible) or nutritional supplements (if required).
Get nutritional advice
A nutritionist, naturopathic doctor, or other health care practitioner with knowledge of nutrition can be a great ally in helping you balance your diet. The most common nutrient deficiency, by far, is low iron. Even borderline iron deficiency can leave people feeling tired, unfocused, unmotivated, and weak.
Correcting low iron status is a simple thing that can make a tremendous difference in energy levels. Low iron is particularly common in women. Women experiencing fatigue should consider having their iron levels tested in addition to testing for thyroid function, another leading cause of fatigue in women.
Too much stress
Living in a chronic state of fight or flight eventually wears us down and burns us out. We need to take breaks from stress and recharge our bodies and our minds. It is important to make a point of breaking the stress cycle each day through activities such as exercise, meditation, and deep breathing. Without these breaks we gradually drain our energy reserves and eventually feel exhausted, unmotivated, and unhappy.
In addition to stress management, it is important to stay on top of nutrition during stressful times. Stress increases the body’s nutrient requirements (such as the B vitamins, vitamin C, and magnesium). The convenience foods that we reach for when stressed are often high in calories and sugar without adequate vitamins and minerals.
The adrenal glands, one sitting atop each kidney, pump out the hormones cortisol and epinephrine in response to stress. This is helpful in the short term but potentially damaging to our health when they pump out too much, for too long. Adaptogens are traditionally used to nourish the overworked adrenal glands and to prevent and treat stress-associated burnout.
Turn to adaptogens
To help support stamina and energy during times of increased demands, consider the adaptogen family of herbs. This family includes traditional herbal favourites such as Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), ashwagandha, and Rhodiola rosea, herbs that can help us to adapt to stress and support those important adrenal glands (see sidebar below).
Sometimes overlooked as a cause of fatigue, dehydration resulting from too little fluid intake and/or too much fluid loss can cause fatigue. It can also cause lightheadedness and, when left too long, muscle aches, irregular heartbeat, and other serious symptoms.
The risk of dehydration increases in situations such as prolonged exercise, diarrhea, vomiting, and hot climates. Each of these can lead to excess losses of both fluid and salts, with replacement of both being important.
Even mild dehydration can have noticeable effects on how we feel and how much energy we have. Researchers have found that dehydration equivalent to about a 1 percent loss in body mass can have negative impacts on mood, concentration, and energy levels in both men and women.
It is important to consume fluids regularly throughout the day, including fluid-rich soups, teas, and fruit, in addition to water and other beverages. In cases where mild dehydration is suspected, replacement of water and salts can be achieved with natural electrolyte replacement drinks. These can be purchased or easily made at home from a simple mix of filtered water, sea salt, and sugar in appropriate proportions.
Lack of sunlight
Humans are light-sensitive creatures and short, gloomy winter days can start to get us down after a while. In some cases the effects can be severe enough to warrant a diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs seasonally. It can present with symptoms that include tiredness, sadness, carbohydrate cravings, irritability, body pain, and insomnia.
It is estimated that SAD affects up to 3 percent of Canadians, with women being at higher risk than men. Less severe symptoms, known as the winter blues, may affect up to 15 percent of the population.
Natural treatment for SAD includes regular exercise and exposure to bright light each day. Researchers have found that one hour of exposure to bright light therapy improves the symptoms of SAD.
Poor sleep/sleep apnea
Poor or inadequate sleep is a leading cause of fatigue. Those who have frequent problems getting to sleep or who find themselves waking frequently are generally aware of the relationship between their sleep problems and fatigue.
However, many others suffer from a condition called sleep apnea (disruptions to breathing that occur while the person is asleep). The consequences of sleep apnea can be serious. In addition to daytime fatigue, sleep apnea can also cause poor concentration, increased blood pressure, and increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
Sleep apnea affects an estimated 3 to 5 percent of Canadians, but rates may be higher due to many cases going unrecognized. Sleep apnea is more common in men and in those who are overweight. Snoring, gasping, and restlessness while the person sleeps are signs of sleep apnea; family members can be a real help in identifying this condition.
If you suspect you may suffer from sleep apnea, consult your health care practitioner. Lifestyle changes such as losing weight and avoiding alcohol may improve your quality of sleep.
If you constantly feel tired, your health care practitioner can help identify the underlying causes of fatigue that may apply to you and what you can do to get yourself back on track. A simple change in nutrition, exercise, or lifestyle may be all it takes to put a spring back in your step.
|Iron||Rhodiola||Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)||B-complex vitamins||Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng)|
|Form||capsules, liquids, tablets||capsules, tablets, tinctures, whole herb||capsules, powder, tablets, tinctures, whole herb||capsules, liquids, powders, tablets||capsules, tablets, tinctures, whole herb|
|What it does||supplementation in those with low iron levels significantly improves energy||helps support both mental and physical stamina, particularly during times of increased physical or mental stress||popular traditional herb to support mental and physical endurance, as well as to support recovery and improve energy after illness||B vitamins are required for the proper metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates; vegetarians, vegans, and the elderly are at particular risk of vitamin B12 deficiency||traditionally used to support endurance, it improves stamina and energy|