Ten steps to boost your energy this winter
Feeling tired and unenthusiastic on these dull days? Take these simple steps and let the sunshine in
In the bleak midwinter, it can be hard to muster the enthusiasm to get out of bed on dark mornings, never mind greet the day with enthusiasm. You may feel tired for no particular reason but find that having a lie-in doesn’t seem to help. You sleepwalk through the early part of the day and are just getting going when it is time to wind down. For some, it is a sign of illness. For most of us, however, it just means we are a bit rundown and need to get back on track.
If jetting off to a Caribbean spa just isn’t on the schedule, why not take the following 10 steps and start to see the benefits within a week to 10 days.
1. Balance your blood sugar
Sounds complicated, but it’s not really. It means avoiding sugar, sweet treats and fast-releasing carbohydrates such as white bread, rice or pasta. “The key to long-term health and weight management is stable blood-sugar levels,” says Elsa Jones, nutritionist and author of Goodbye Sugar. “When you get that piece in check, all else starts to fall into place: your energy levels improve, your sweet cravings reduce, your mood stabilises and your weight drops.”
When we eat too many sugary foods, our blood-sugar levels rise rapidly, giving us a “sugar rush”, she says. “This is effectively a false energy which is very short-lived. Unfortunately, for every up there is a down, hence the subsequent sugar crash, causing our energy levels to plummet and further cravings, the mid-afternoon slump being a classic example.”
So choose brown rice and wholegrain bread and pasta rather than the white stuff. This also helps you get B vitamins, which are essential for energy.
2. Reduce alcohol
Alcohol interferes with the quality of your sleep, leaving you feeling less rested. Though you might drop off more easily, it can reduce the amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep you get, which can leave you feeling drowsy and with poor concentration during the day, according to Askaboutalcohol. ie, the HSE’s alcohol information website. Alcohol can have a long-term impact on your mental health too. It can cause anxiety and depression, or make an existing condition worse. You don’t have to drink to excess to suffer negative effects. So even regular drinkers can begin to see a positive effect on sleep and energy levels within 10 days of cutting down.
3. Eat a rainbow
To function optimally, you need a variety of vitamins and minerals, ideally from vegetables, fruit, grains and some dairy or meat, if you are not vegetarian. Irish people tend to get plenty of meat and dairy, but not enough vegetables. Remember to mix it up, however, as different-coloured vegetables contain different phytonutrients.
“Red foods, such as tomatoes, contain lycopene, which some researchers argue reduces the risk of some types of cancer and heart disease,” writes Dr Rangan Chatterjee in his latest book The 4 Pillar Plan: How to Relax, Eat, Move and Sleep Your Way to a Longer, Healthier Life. Other colours, such as yellow, purple, green and orange, have other life-enhancing properties. Leafy greens, for example, contain magnesium, which is involved in more than 300 chemical reactions in the body including energy production.
4. Reduce caffeine
Despite recent research indicating that coffee drinkers may live longer, the drink contains caffeine, which affects some more than others. To be on the safe side, Dr Chatterjee advises having coffee before noon.
“How you metabolise coffee depends a bit on your genetics . . . If you are one of the lucky ones who metabolise it more quickly, you are more likely to get the benefits . . . but if you metabolise it slowly, it’ll stick around in your body for longer and that may make you more vulnerable to its adverse effects, which include irritability, anxiety and sleep disruption.”
Evidence suggests that even if you can fall asleep after having caffeine in the evening, you don’t access the deep levels of sleep you need. Most people feel energised and better able to cope with stress without too much.
5. Try ginseng
Siberian ginseng is a favourite with herbalists because it is tolerated well by most people.
“It’s good for people who have been overdoing it or have a period of stress coming up as it can improve your physical and emotional response,” says Nikki Darrell, a herbalist with Veriditas Hibernica in Cork. Use it while you are working on improving your diet and exercise habits, she says, as those will provide the long-term benefits. It can be taken in addition to many medications, but check with your doctor first.
“Siberian ginseng has a good safety record, but it can be overstimulating, so don’t take too much, don’t take it too late in the day, and don’t keep taking it for a long time,” she says. Using it for four weeks to help get back on your feet should be enough.
6. Move every day
Exercise delivers oxygen and nutrients to your tissues and helps the cardiovascular system to work more efficiently. When your heart and lung health improve, you have more energy for life. Adding half an hour every other day, ideally in the morning or afternoon, can make a difference for most people. Whatever you do, do something. Aerobic exercise, which makes your heart beat faster, such as walking fast, running or cycling, strengthens the heart and burns calories. Resistance exercise, which involves pushing weights or pulling against stretchy exercise bands, builds and maintains muscle too.
7. Get outside every day
Letting the sunshine onto your face doesn’t just feel good, it can help to top up your levels of vitamin D, which is key in Ireland where levels can be dangerously low, manifesting initially as tiredness, joint pain, stiffness or cramps. The lack of sunlight in the northern hemisphere affects our levels of the happy neurotransmitter serotonin, according to research by the Baker Heart and Diabetes Research Institute in Australia. Happily, you can get the vitamin from your diet. So eat oily fish, such as salmon or mackerel, twice a week, or have some free-range eggs. Your doctor can check vitamin D levels and advise on taking a supplement.
8. Take care of your gut
Much new research on health is focused on our gut bacteria. It is believed to affect our mental health, weight and immune function. What this means in practical terms is that you need to keep your good gut bacteria happy, while not encouraging an overgrowth of the wrong type. To keep it operating at its best capacity, avoid too much sugar, while eating more vegetables.
Help the trillions of little critters to do their job by eating grains, beans and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, radish, leeks, onions and garlic. You can also have probiotic natural unflavoured yoghurt, sauerkraut or pickles. You might be surprised at how soon you start to feel better.
9. Are you sufficiently hydrated?
How much water you need to take in depends on such factors as exercise levels, but also age. We need more as we get older. If you get too little, your eyes feel dry, you struggle to shake off colds, suffer headaches, have poor concentration and lack energy. At a minimum, you should have about a litre a day. So drink water, herbal tea and diluted juice. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables will help too.
10. Get enough sleep
Researchers agree most people need seven to nine hours of largely uninterrupted sleep. So what can you do? Following the previous steps will make it easier to drop off and to enjoy quality sleep. You should also create regular sleep-promoting habits. Keep the bedroom quiet, dark and not too warm. Stay away from electronic media before bed. Do not eat or exercise late. If all of the steps to get your energy back do not improve your sleep, consider getting professional help. Rested is renewed.
Signs your blood sugar may be out of balance
You still feel tired 20 minutes after getting up
You need tea, coffee or a cigarette to get you going in the morning
You feel tired a lot of the time
You struggle to lose weight
You often crave chocolate, sweets or bread
You have energy slumps in mid-morning or mid-afternoon
You have difficulty concentrating
You overreact to stress