How Your Diet's Keeping You Down
By Hallie Levine Sklar
What if we told you your lagging energy level has little or nothing to do with your superbusy schedule? Read on to discover the real reasons you're dragging, plus simple energy solutions.
● Your body's thirsty.
"Many women who complain of fatigue are actually just dehydrated," says Dave Grotto, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association in Chicago. Dehydration reduces blood flow to your organs, leaving you sluggish. Drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of liquids such as water each day. A good self-test? If your pee is clear or pale yellow, you're getting enough fluids.
● You crave carbs.
Who doesn't? But the processed ones in white bread, cookies, and pasta cause your blood sugar to spike, then crash, leaving you exhausted. At least 50 percent of your diet should come from carbohydrates, but opt for complex ones like fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
● You're skipping meals.
You dive into your workday with nothing but a Starbucks venti to sustain you, and if you're lucky you find time to scarf down a PowerBar for lunch. Is it any wonder you're exhausted by the time 3 p.m. rolls around? "Skipping meals, or even just not eating for a few hours, can cause blood sugar dips that leave you feeling weak," explains Grotto. A great way to build all-day energy is to eat a fiber-rich cereal for breakfast, according to recent study findings at Cardiff University in Wales. Participants who did experienced a 10 percent reduction in fatigue, fewer incidents of depression, and improved cognitive skills.
● You're not getting the nutrients you need.
Many women are short on magnesium, a mineral that improves cell efficiency, thus conserving energy, says ob/gyn Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom. You need about 400 mg a day (most multivitamins have about 100 mg). To make sure you get enough, eat foods rich in magnesium such as peanut butter, green leafy veggies, and whole grains. Another nutrient we often fall short on: omega-3 fatty acids, which help regulate metabolism and boost oxygen intake, thus increasing energy. They're found in higher-fat fish such as tuna, mackerel, and salmon, so aim for a few servings a week.
How Everyday Habits Zap Energy
●You're watching too much TV.
For every hour spent channel surfing, people walk 144 fewer steps, according to one Harvard study. The result? Slow and steady weight gain that drags you down. "Try strapping on 10 pounds of weights and walking around with them for a day - you'll be exhausted," says Grotto. That sluggishness also makes you less likely to gear up for a pound-paring workout. To break the cycle, try limiting TV time, or watch it while you're on the treadmill.
● You're not getting enough daylight.
"Sunlight triggers your brain to release specific brain chemicals such as serotonin, which is vital to boosting mood and energy," says Northrup. So step outside every day for a 20-minute walk, but don't forgo the SPF - it's the sunlight absorbed by your eyes that activates the brain's pineal gland and signals the release of energizing neurochemicals, so protecting your skin from UV rays won't defeat the purpose.
● You obsess over everything.
"My research shows that women are prone to ruminating - we overanalyze everything, be it a friend's comment or a fight with hubby, which stresses us out and zaps our energy," explains Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., author of Eating, Drinking, Overthinking. "It becomes a vicious cycle - stress brings on more rumination, which leaves us even more anxious and exhausted." Her suggestion: Find someone you trust to vent to for five minutes, and then let it go.
● You're glued to your cell phone or pager.
They're designed to make life easier, but these gadgets can actually increase anxiety levels by placing more demands on you throughout the day, according to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study. And it's worse for women, who are more likely to receive telephone calls at work from a crying child or a frustrated spouse, says study author Noelle Chesley, Ph.D. Consider asking your family to email you rather than call (unless it's a real emergency): The study found that Internet use didn't evoke the same stress.
● You've got a lot of lingering to-do's.
Annoying recurring problems (like a constantly running toilet or a leaky sink) can be even more emotionally draining over time than a major life trauma like losing your job or a loved one or getting divorced. "A one-time stressful event can impact energy short-term, but it's all those little nagging unfinished tasks - I call them "NUTS" - that hang around that wear you out over time," explains Michael Roizen, M.D., author of You: The Owner's Manual. This low-grade chronic stress can cause your body to constantly produce stress hormones, such as cortisol, that increase blood pressure, age your arteries, and weaken your immune system, effectively aging you by about 32 years, Roizen's research shows. Who knew that simply crossing items off your to-do list could amp up your energy levels and make you feel a few decades younger?
How Hidden Health Concerns Wear You Out
● You've got sinus problems.
Patients who report unexplained chronic fatigue are nine times more likely to have sinusitis symptoms (such as headaches, sinus pressure, and chronic nasal congestion) than those who feel rested and well, according to a Georgetown University Medical Center study. "Most of the patients I diagnose with sinusitis are women in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s - and they're the most likely to brush off their symptoms as run-of-the-mill exhaustion," says study author Alexander Chester, M.D. Women are particularly susceptible during pregnancy, when shifts in hormone levels can cause nasal membranes to swell. Your doctor can generally diagnose sinusitis by taking a careful history of your symptoms. Treatment may involve nasal steroid sprays to reduce inflammation, decongestants, and antihistamines to treat underlying allergies.
●Your guy snores.
Having a partner who saws wood can cost you an hour of sleep a night, according to one Mayo Clinic study. Next time his snorting and snuffling jerks you out of slumber, nudge him to roll over on his side, suggests Charles Kimmelman, M.D., an ear, nose, and throat specialist at Cornell University's Weill Medical College in New York City. One reason: Back-sleeping can cause the uvula (the small mass of tissue that hangs at the back of the throat) to fall back and block the airway. A saline or prescription nasal spray may also help relieve any congestion. If these measures don't work, he may have sleep apnea, a sleep breathing disorder that causes snoring and pauses in breathing. Diagnosis sometimes involves spending the night at a sleep center so machines can monitor his breathing; wearing a special mask over his nose while he sleeps may help open his breathing passages.
● You've got undiagnosed heart disease.
About 70 percent of women who have had heart attacks experienced fatigue for about a month beforehand, according to one University of Arkansas study. You're not too young for this killer, either: "I've seen plenty of women in their 30s and 40s who have had heart attacks, many of whom told me they couldn't even walk up steps without feeling exhausted, but figured they were just getting old," explains study author Jean C. McSweeney, Ph.D. Other warning signs? Sleep disturbances, shortness of breath, indigestion, and anxiety. "If you have any of these symptoms, especially if you have known risk factors for heart disease, see your doctor," says McSweeney.
●You're mildly anemic.
About 12 percent of women under 50 have anemia or deficient levels of iron, a mineral key to producing hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that transports energizing oxygen throughout the body. Anemia is typically diagnosed with a complete blood count test, which measures circulating hemoglobin levels. But even if your numbers are normal, you may still be anemic. "Have your doctor also test your ferritin levels, which measure your body's iron stores," says Northrup. Anything below 12 nanograms per milliliter signals anemia. Your doctor will probably advise eating more iron-rich foods, such as lean beef and dried fruit. But don't take an iron supplement before first asking your doctor, since too-high levels can damage your liver.
● You're hypothyroid.
One in 10 women have hypothyroidism, or low thyroid hormone levels - and about half don't know it, according to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. "Thyroid hormones control metabolic rate, so when your cells aren't getting enough, your body's processes start to slow down, leaving you sluggish and prone to weight gain," says Mark Wiesen, M.D., director of endocrinology at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Your doctor can check hormone levels in your blood with a thyroid-stimulating hormone test; low levels are treatable with a synthetic hormone, which you may have to take for the rest of your life. Another 10 percent of women experience postpartum thyroiditis, a decline in thyroid levels that frequently normalizes on its own over time.
● You've got restless legs syndrome (RLS).
Up to 10 percent of women suffer from RLS, a neurologic disorder characterized by an overwhelming urge to move your legs when they're at rest. "It can cause severe sleep deprivation because whenever you do fall asleep, your legs jerk you awake," says Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, D.O., director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic. If you suspect RLS, check your iron levels: One suspected cause is iron deficiency (doctors aren't sure why). If you aren't anemic, ask your doctor about Requip, a drug proved to reduce RLS symptoms.
● Your meds are knocking you out.
Certain antidepressants such as Celexa and Paxil can be sedating, according to Judith Orloff, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Positive Energy, so if yours are dragging you down, talk to your doctor about switching to a more "activating" antidepressant such as Prozac or Wellbutrin. Another common Rx culprit? Statins, cholesterol-lowering drugs that can deplete body levels of CoQ10, a coenzyme vital to producing energy in cells. Often, switching to a different statin solves the problem. Plenty of over-the-counter (OTC) products zap energy, too. The most common are allergy or nighttime cold remedies, which contain diphenhydramine HCL, a sedating antihistamine. If an OTC label lists fatigue as a side effect, ask the pharmacist for suggestions on nonsedating meds.
● You've got diabetes.
Nearly 10 million women over age 20 have diabetes, and about a third don't know it, according to the American Diabetes Association. One telltale symptom: unexplained fatigue. "When you're diabetic, glucose or blood sugar - the body's main source of energy - can't get into your muscle cells," says endocrinologist Alan L. Rubin, M.D., author of Diabetes for Dummies. If you're overweight and/or have a family history of diabetes, ask your doctor for a fasting blood glucose test to measure your levels. If caught early, diabetes can be controlled with simple lifestyle changes such as increasing exercise, lowering fat intake, and losing excess pounds.
What to Do
1. Go for a walk.
"Less than 25 percent of my female patients get enough exercise to feel energized," says Ann Kulze, M.D., author of Dr. Ann's 10 Step Diet. Aim for 30 minutes of activity, five days a week.
2. Snack on nuts, not sweets.
Sugary snacks cause blood sugar levels to spike, then crash, leaving you wiped out, says Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., medical director of the Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers (fibroandfatigue.com). But the protein in nuts digests slowly for lasting energy.
3. Pop a mint.
The smell of mint ups alertness by stimulating your trigeminal nerve, "the same nerve that's activated by smelling salts," says Alan Hirsch, M.D., director of Chicago's Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation.
5. Have a banana.
Bananas provide potassium, a mineral key to converting blood sugar into energy, says ob/gyn Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom.
7. Take a hike.
Observing nature's beauty can relieve energy-zapping stress. Studies suggest that workers who have views of nature have fewer stress-related symptoms.
8. Avoid "energy vampires."
You know, like that friend who calls twice a day just to grumble? "These people wear you out with their constant complaining," says Judith Orloff, M.D. So set limits. For instance, tell your friend you can talk for only five minutes, then end the call when her time is up.
9. Take a power nap.
A Harvard study found that a 30-minute midday nap prevented energy from flagging further, while an hour-long nap actually boosted energy and performance.
10. Do a mini-meditation.
Sit in a quiet place, take slow, deep breaths, and concentrate on a pleasing memory. Within three minutes, you should feel calmer and more energized.