It’s a classic chicken-and-egg question: Which came first, the pain or the fatigue? As many as three out of four people living with chronic musculoskeletal pain complain of being tired, while 94 percent of folks with chronic fatigue problems also have muscle pain. So, however you look at it, chances are good that if you have pain, tiredness is a close companion. The trouble is that fatigue wears down your mind as well as your body. In fact, has even been linked to depression and short-term memory loss, as well as a weak immune system.
But you don’t need to take tiredness lying down. Start a journal to keep track of your energy highs and lows. A journal will also allow you to recognize patterns and make connections between what might trigger a slump, such as irregular sleep patterns, stress, lack of exercise and, yes, diet.
While there are numerous causes of fatigue, including some medical conditions and medications, one of the biggest instigators is poor nutrition. To fight fatigue with wholesome foods, use our four-point guide below. You’ll learn how to pack your diet with power foods, schedule meals to give you boosts throughout the day and steer clear of classic energy sappers.
Pump up with power foods
Eating for more energy means getting the right balance of protein and high quality carbohydrates, which contain a healthy dose of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (think fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains), in every meal and snack.
An all-carb meal, such as a plate of pasta with marinara sauce, or piece of fruit with crackers, will boost levels of a brain chemical called serotonin, which can lift your mood, but will also leave you relaxed, or even sleepy. Adding a bit of protein, such as parmesan cheese sprinkled on the pasta, or spreading peanut butter on the crackers, blocks the serotonin effect and stimulates the release of norepinephrine, an energizing brain chemical. Portion size also matters: huge feasts, as well as fatty, greasy foods, make us sluggish.
Time it right
There’s a reason why they call breakfast the most important meal of the day. Studies show that eating a healthy breakfast helps boost memory, mood and alertness, and keeps the pounds off by preventing overeating throughout the day.
For sustained energy, prepare breakfasts that mix protein with high-quality carbohydrates, such as:
- Hot oatmeal cooked in milk with raisins
- Scrambled eggs with whole-grain toast
- Peanut butter on a whole-wheat bagel
After breakfast, remember to fuel up regularly, about every four hours, with either a light meal or snack to keep your energy up. People who eat steadily throughout the day maintain more consistent energy levels compared to those who skip meals or eat sporadically.
Keep lunch light. A low-fat midday meal of 500 or so calories improves afternoon alertness, while fasting or eating a high-calorie burger and fries is likely to leave you tired and unable to concentrate. Combine a little protein with some high-quality carbs, found in bulgur and brown rice, to release energy-lifting brain chemicals like norepinephrine.
In between meals, snack defensively: Choose nutrient-packed, time-released carbohydrates, such as almonds and dried apricots, low-fat granola or multigrain pretzels with fruit. And don’t forget to drink water, since one of the first symptoms of dehydration is fatigue.
Forget the quick fix
To combat sluggishness, most of us turn to a double espresso, a cola or sugary snack for a boost. It makes sense: Studies show that one or two cups of coffee a day can help some people work more efficiently, think faster, stay alert and concentrate better. Similarly, the sugar in a can of cola or candy bar provides a jolt to your system. But these quick fixes are just that. Before you know it, they become energy sappers when the initial high gives way to an even bigger crash, usually after an hour or so. To get back up, you’ll likely need to consume more coffee, cola and sugar. It’s a never-ending cycle.
Instead, cut back or eliminate caffeine by switching to decaffeinated drinks or opting for flavorful herbal teas like ginger-orange, and prevent a blood-sugar rush by snacking on raisins and walnuts instead of a Snickers. Simple substitutions like these can have a profound effect on your energy level, according to Larry Christensen, Ph.D., chairman of the department of psychology at the University of South Alabama. Christensen studied the effects of coffee and sugar on mood and found that about one in four people experiencing depression show improvements in their energy levels with a week of eliminating sugar and/or caffeine.
Written by: Elizabeth Somer, R.D., author of Eat Your Way to Happiness (Harlequin, 2009)
Editor-in-chief of the newsletter Nutrition Alert
Originally published by: Pain Solutions Magazine, Spring 2010, Edited 2017