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A healthy lifestyle can reduce fatigue, boost energy

Published April 20, 2007


Look around you at the gym. Can you be the only one wondering, "How can I get the energy to do this?" And as you get older, it doesn't get any easier. Little wonder we are besieged by commercials for products that promise to boost our energy.

Why the obsession with energy? Are we working harder, not taking care of ourselves or simply expecting more out of each 24-hour day?

Experts generally agree on three culprits: sleep, stress and diet.

Quality, uninterrupted sleep is essential in helping the body repair tissue and restore itself, especially in people who exercise. Lack of sleep can impede your concentration levels and cause depression.

Dr. John Brown, a sleep specialist at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, refers to this lack of quality sleep as "sleep debt," comparable, he says, to our society's financial debt.

Quality sleep has five stages, with the fifth (non-rapid eye movement, or REM), commonly associated with a deep sleep or dream state. It is important to get into the later stages of sleep because that is when the body produces growth hormone. Growth hormone, secreted by the pituitary gland, affects all aspects of cellular metabolism including protein synthesis and breaking down fats. A lack of it lowers metabolism, causing fatigue and weight gain.

While humans typically need seven to eight hours of sleep each night, "what might be acceptable and tolerable for one, might not be for another," Brown says. If you log a normal amount of sleep and continue to experience an abnormal lack of energy during the day, you might want to consult a physician.

You might suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, which is far more distressful than feeling sluggish in the morning.

While CFS can follow a severe illness, abnormal stress or death in the family, symptoms also can result from sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is characterized by temporary breathing interruptions during sleep, often lasting from 10 to 20 seconds. The pauses in breathing can occur dozens or hundreds of times a night and put a tremendous amount of stress on the respiratory system.

Loud snoring, gasping for air during sleep and excessive daytime napping are signs of sleep apnea. Typically a spouse or bed partner first becomes aware of the situation.

Obesity is one major cause of sleep apnea. While obese white males have been studied most thoroughly, the condition can affect anyone.

Stressed out

When I was young there was little to worry about other than getting good grades and staying fit. Stress rarely becomes a dilemma until we become adults, when work, dating, family and financial matters expand exponentially.

While these common stress factors affect everybody's life, some have a more difficult time coping and the stress manifests itself physically.

Stress inhibits the immune system, detracts from our focus and often leads us back to the first problem, lack of sleep. Exercise is one good way to alleviate stress. But if your mind is cluttered with worries during a weight lifting session or fitness class it becomes difficult to reach your potential and reap the benefits of a successful workout.

You've seen ads for weight-loss products that include some derivative of the word cortisol. While I do not endorse these products, the hormone cortisol plays a critical part in how the body deals with stress.

Cortisol itself, produced in the adrenal cortex, does not pose a threat to the body; its purpose is to help our bodies deal with stress and maintain a healthy immune system.

But prolonged stress can induce an overproduction of cortisol, leading to an increase in blood pressure, blood sugar levels and abdominal fat while suppressing the body's ability to fight cold and infection.

Extended anxiety puts the adrenal gland under enormous pressure to try and keep up with the production of cortisol. This eventually can lead to a group of symptoms that some medical practitioners call adrenal fatigue.

People with adrenal fatigue typically feel drained in the morning and don't feel fully awake until noon, with lulls in energy all day.

Other symptoms include inability to lose weight, difficulty remembering things, colds and lightheadedness.

Eating yourself to exhaustion

As a trainer, the two biggest mistakes I see people make are:1) going into a good evening workout session having had their last meal around noon, or 2) the reverse, a person who hurried a meal on his way to the gym thinking that would give him proper energy to workout.

When and how often you eat are just as important to your energy levels as what you eat. Long periods without food tell our bodies to shut down and conserve energy.

That fact has been programmed into our DNA, and it makes perfect sense when you think about it.

In the days of Neanderthal Man, food was more scarce. For early man to survive during winter time or periods of food scarcity, the body's metabolism would slow down dramatically in what you could call "survival mode".

To not so great an extent, when we go without food for even five to seven hours, we experience a similar drop in metabolism, a halt in the burning of fuel, a lull in energy.

But eating just before exercise will do nothing but drain your body of its ability to function at an optimum level, as your organs are using energy to process and digest food.

That is why we feel tired after a large meal.

For your body to function as the well oiled machine it should be, it is better to eat small meals throughout the day, every two to three hours. Consider three basic meals a day with small snacks in between. And by snacks, I mean fruits, nuts, energy bars, etc.

Complex carbohydrates are the body's preferred source of energy.

But perhaps one reason some of us experience fatigue is a diet skewered toward consuming protein in large quantities.

High protein meals build muscle and restore our bodies on a cellular level, but a lack of quality carbohydrates makes it much more difficult for our bodies to produce energy. Here's the catch: Not all carbohydrates are good for sustained energy. Refined sugars, found in sodas and candy bars, give you a quick energy fix but do not provide a good source of long lasting fuel, typically leaving the body in what's referred to as a "crash" state after they rush through the digestive system.

In addition to simple sugars, beware of processed or refined foods as they are more difficult to break down in digestion. What's more, the food's molecular structure has changed, robbing it of its true nutrients.

Processed and refined foods are higher on the glycemic index, a scale that ranks carbohydrate-rich foods by how much they raise blood glucose levels.

Foods high on the index burn quickly and release a rapid shot of energy to the body. Again, this is not good for stamina and leaves the body in a crash state.

Foods low on the glycemic index release energy more slowly and combat fatigue. Low index foods are typically lower in calories and fat and higher in fiber.

But we will cover more of that in the next article.

[Last modified April 19, 2007, 07:16:15]

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