How to Combat Fatigue: Essential Steps for Overcoming Tiredness
If your busy life is leaving you running on empty and you find yourself flagging before you’re even half way through your workout, you may be wondering what happened to your get-up-and-go – or more importantly, whether you’ll ever get it back again.
It’s natural to feel tired every now and then. But fatigue can become more serious when it’s severe and/or long lasting. Indeed many people have a problem with low energy, says the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which suggests at any given time one in every five people feels unusually tired and one in 10 has prolonged fatigue (i).
To fix a fatigue problem you need to find out what’s causing it in the first place. Some causes of tiredness are pretty clear – if you’ve been burning the candle at both ends, for example. Others, however, are less obvious.
If you’ve been feeling tired all the time for a while it’s a good idea to tell your doctor about it, as fatigue can be caused by several health problems such as:
What you eat
Relying on too many processed or convenience foods can lead to fatigue, as it means your body isn’t getting the nutrients it needs. Instead, try to eat a healthy balanced diet with at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day, as this will give you the vitamins, mineral and fibre your body needs to work properly.
Base your meals on starchy carbohydrates such as potatoes, bread, rice and pasta – wholegrain versions whenever possible – as carbs are a vital energy source, especially when you’re training regularly (also try having an energy drink that provides complex carbs before, during or after training).
Add foods such as nuts and lentils to your diet as they contain energy-releasing protein, and have some dairy foods too, ideally lower-fat and lower-sugar options (including dairy alternatives). And don’t forget to eat plenty of iron-rich foods, which may also help with energy, such as eggs, seaweed, lean red meat, green leafy veg and shellfish.
When you’re tired it’s also tempting to give yourself a short burst of energy by eating stimulating foods, such as foods that contain caffeine and sugar. The problem with these foods is they may make you feel alert and focused at first, but you’ll feel even more drained once their energy-giving effects wear off. So try to cut out (or at least cut down on) tea, coffee, cola drinks and chocolate – all of which contain caffeine – as well as sweets, cakes, biscuits and fruit drinks.
There’s more information about energy foods in our tiredness and fatigue guide.
When you eat
When life gets hectic it’s easy to skip a meal or two. But going for too long without eating can make your blood sugar level drop, leaving you feeling light-headed and lacking in energy. So try to make a conscious effort to eat regularly – including breakfast – and if you tend to feel tired between meals, have some healthy snacks at hand to keep you going (try a small palmful of dried fruit and nuts for slow-release energy).
Tiredness can also be a sign that you’re dehydrated (headaches, nausea and poor concentration are other signs to look out for). Dehydration can happen when you don’t drink enough fluids throughout the day, and also if you sweat a lot when you’re working out (especially if you’re exercising in hot weather).
Not sure you’re dehydrated? There’s an easy way to find out. Just check the colour of your urine – if you’re properly hydrated it should be very pale (if it’s dark yellow and has a strong smell, you may be dehydrated).
To keep your hydration levels up the NHS recommends drinking six to eight glasses of fluid a day, with healthier choices including water, lower-fat milk and sugar-free drinks.
Meanwhile, try not to drink too much alcohol, as this too can make you dehydrated. Alcohol can also disturb your sleep, which can make you feel wiped out the next day.
If you’ve discovered the energy-boosting effect of exercise, you may think the more you work out, the more energetic you’ll be. But doing too much exercise and not having enough recovery and rest can have the opposite effect. If you’re overtraining you may not just feel tired, but your performance may be affected and you may experience mood swings and irritability too. Working out too close to bedtime can also rob you of your energy, as you may struggle to fall sleep afterwards.
Lack of natural light
Spending most or all of your time indoors under artificial lighting can affect your energy levels. Exposure to natural bright light helps you feel more awake because it switches off your brain’s production of a hormone that makes you feel sleepy, called melatonin. The solution is to get outdoors whenever you can – go for a walk during your lunch break, for instance, or try training outdoors when the weather allows. Sitting close to a window can also help.
If you’re frequently logged on to your laptop, tablet or smartphone, it’s highly likely you’ll be suffering from energy-sapping sensory overstimulation, thanks to the waves of messages, texts, tweets and all manner of other information that come your way throughout the day. The blue light emitted by digital devices is also thought to interfere with sleep, as it tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime, 24 hours a day.
If you want to get a better night’s sleep, consider imposing a screen curfew two or three hours before bedtime and ban all digital devices from your bedroom.
Natural energy supplements
There are several sports supplements you could try that may help give your energy levels a bit of a boost too, including:
This is an amino acid used by the body to turn fat into energy, which may explain why it’s popular with active and sports people. It’s produced naturally in the body, with food sources including red meat and dairy foods. Look for a supplement in tartrate form, as this is thought to have a high absorption rate.
B vitamins are needed for a range of functions in the body, many of which include turning food into energy. One in particular – B12 – is strongly associated with energy, since deficiency can cause anaemia, the most common symptom of which is extreme tiredness. B vitamins are available in supplement form (both individually and combined as B complex) as well as in many sports and energy drinks.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10 for short), plays a major role in the body’s mechanism for producing energy, and is often recommended as a performance enhancer for sports people. Also known as ubiquinone it’s a powerful antioxidant that’s made naturally in the body. However, as you get older you make less of it. Very small amounts of CoQ10 are found in food, mainly beef and chicken, which means the most convenient way of getting more CoQ10 in your diet may be to take a supplement.
Often used by active people during periods of physical exertion, Panax ginseng (also known as Asian or Korean ginseng) has been found to support aerobic capacity in people participating in sporting activities (ii). Look for a product that lists the level of ginsenosides in each tablet (ginsenosides are the active ingredients in ginseng, and products low in ginsenosides may not be effective).
Available online: https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mental-health/problems-disorders/tiredness
Forgo. I. Effect of drugs on physical exertion and the hormonal system of athlete [in German]. MMW Munch Med Wochenschr. (1983). 125:822-824. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6415449
McNaughton. L.G., Egan. G., Caelli. G. A comparison of Chinese and Russian ginseng as ergogenic aids to improve various facets of physical fitness. Int J Clin Nutr Rev. (1989). 9:32-35.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.