Fatigue seems to be as ubiquitous as complaints about the weather. But it is especially prevalent during the holidays for obvious and not so obvious reasons. The obvious: buying, wrapping and sending presents, food shopping and preparation, decorating the house, travel or hosting guests, and so forth. The not so obvious is the inescapable darkness of this time of year. When the sun is gone by 4pm in some parts of the country (and certainly by 5:30 in other parts) it is hard not to feel that bedtime is not so very far away. In addition, an all-encompassing fatigue is one of the symptoms of the winter blues that many experience during the late fall and winter.
Regardless of its cause, fatigue diminishes our productivity and takes away the pleasure we might have in what we have produced. If after shopping, cooking, decorating, buying and sending gifts, the holiday event you have worked so hard to bring about is just ‘… one more thing to do’, then fatigue has taken away your pleasure.
Recognizing that you will probably be more tired than usual is the first step in reducing the fatigue. Getting enough sleep is not only an obvious way of preventing exhaustion, doing so has been shown in countless studies to enhance both physical and mental performance. You would not want a neurosurgeon to perform an operation on you, or have your pilot fly you across the Atlantic with inadequate sleep. Staying up later or waking up earlier than your body’s normal sleep timetable may not allow you to accomplish as much as you want, or as well as you want, because of diminished cognition.
Planning rest intervals of only a few minutes throughout a day of endless tasks will also relieve tiredness. These rest periods are sort of like sitting on a rock or log during a long hike, drinking water and looking at the scenery. Time-outs from the endless doing will give you energy to continue, just as sitting for a few minutes during the hike gives you the stamina to continue.
Avoid eating high fat foods, as these may cause you to feel sluggish. A double bacon cheeseburger with a fat filled sauce and French fries may seem just the food to restore your energy. Unfortunately they will leave you with just about enough energy to crawl onto a sofa for a nap. Stick to vegetables, fruits, lean proteins like fish, chicken, low fat yogurt, and fiber filled carbohydrates like whole grain breads. These low and no fat foods will nourish you, and not leaving you feeling like a zombie.
Drink plenty of water. Indoor heat can be dehydrating, and even though you may not feel thirsty the way you did during the summer, your body still needs water. Not getting enough liquids will only add to your fatigue.
Late afternoon is perhaps the most fatiguing time of all. Many people experience a deterioration in their energy levels and mood around 4 or 5 pm, regardless of how busy they are, and this is particularly true if the sun has already set. Decreases in serotonin may be one cause of the fatigue, along with a decrease in blood caffeine when that cup of coffee was consumed hours earlier. Eating a small starchy, low or fat-free snack such as pretzels, bagel thins, rice cakes or breakfast cereal increases serotonin within 30 or so minutes, restores mental energy and improves mood. The snack should contain about 30 grams of carbohydrate (read food label) and have no more than 2-3 grams of protein, as protein prevents serotonin from being made. If drinking a caffeinated beverage will not delay your sleep onset later on, then a cup of tea or coffee, along with carbohydrate, will give you an energy boost that should last for a few more hours. Think of this as an English tea.
Exercise has an amazing restorative power. The common excuse about not doing any physical activity is that is since one is already tired, how can becoming more tired (through exercise) make one less tired? It does seem paradoxical, but it works. Moving the blood more quickly through the body, heating up the body through vigorous movement, oxygenating the blood with deeper breathing; these all may contribute to the clearing of the head and invigorating the muscles.
But taking the time to go to a gym, exercise class or indoor swimming pool may seem totally incompatible with an overcommitted schedule. There are two ways of dealing with this: One is to put the word exercise on the ‘to do’ list or day’s calendar, and give it the same prominence as a dentist appointment or a meeting with your child’s teacher. Go to the exercise class or meet a friend for a walk or take your dog for a long walk at least a few times a week. The second option is to incorporate short bouts of exercise into the day. Avoid elevators. Take the stairs even if you are loaded down with packages. Walk, don’t drive to do an errand several blocks away. Use an exercise app that puts your body through a workout in 7-10 minutes. This is a good option for those days (weeks) when the weather makes outdoor exercise unendurable.
Find a place where you can be alone, where you can withdraw from the demands around you. You may have to put a “Do not Disturb “ sign on the door or a “Back in 10“ sign on the outside of the room where you retreated. Use the room when you feel that you must have a respite from everything going on around you. Sit or lie down, meditate if you can, do some stretching exercises, listen to music, or the radio or television, read a magazine or a few pages of an engrossing book. When you emerge, you will notice that your energy has returned. Perhaps not as much as you want, but you will be able to continue getting through the rest of your list.
If your fatigue is exacerbated by the decreasing hours of daylight, consider using a sun or light box. These devices contain lights that mimic the spectrum of the sun. Studies over the last thirty years have shown that early more exposure to these lights seems to decrease the symptoms of winter depression, including intense tiredness.
Finally? Laugh. There is nothing so energizing as being with friends or family and hearing a funny story. Failing that, try watching some of the home videos on television. They will also drive away your fatigue.