As an unprecedented year comes to a close, feelings of exhaustion and burnout were everywhere. Dietitian Susie Burrell helps you get your energy back.
You could be forgiven for feeling a little tired right now. Not only was this year full of ups and downs, but the underlying stress of dealing with Covid lockdowns and its limitations on daily life caused a general feeling of fatigue among the population.
Even before the pandemic, chronic tiredness was being reported in high numbers, especially among women. And while a degree of fatigue is to be expected when days are crammed with activity, experiencing extreme, ongoing fatigue — as though you’ve been hit by a bus — is not normal. If you wake up each day feeling like you’ve not slept and could literally fall asleep at any moment, it’s time to take a closer look at the possible causes.
Riding the corona-coaster
Whether you’ve been juggling homeschooling with full-time work for lengthy periods, or simply can’t remember the last time you had a holiday, the combination of more time in front of screens and less downtime outdoors may be starting to take its toll. Not to mention the challenges and worries of living through a serious global pandemic.
With so many parents and carers forced to take on multiple tasks and roles throughout the last 18 months — without regular breaks, holidays and social outings — it’s no wonder so many are feeling exhausted. As travel bans finally begin to lift, don‘t underestimate the healing power of a change of scenery. If you can’t get away from home for a night or two, just scheduling extended periods of time away from the computer will help you feel refreshed and recharged. Create special family events, meals and occasions so you have things to look forward to. Reconnect with simple pleasures, such as browsing with a friend at the shops or getting a massage, haircut or other beauty appointment for some soothing self-care.
Eight ways to re-energise after lockdowns
- Schedule regular time away from screens
- Spend time in nature without your phone
- Socialise with friends regularly
- Get out into the sun for at least 20 minutes a day
- Start each weekday with a clear to-do list
- Go to bed and get up at the same time each day
- Practise gratitude every day by recalling the good things in your life
- Have something to look forward to each day
Are you deficient in iron?
One in four women have low levels of iron in their bloodstream. This essential mineral is required to transport all-important oxygen around the body, and lethargy and tiredness are common signs of iron deficiency.
One of the main reasons iron stores become depleted over time is that lean red meat, one of the richest dietary sources of well-absorbed haem iron, is not consumed as often as it needs to be among meat eaters to get adequate amounts of iron throughout the week. Much more common is to see ‘sporadic’ red meat eaters, those who eat it only occasionally. While you only need a small amount of red meat (70 to 100g) to get enough iron, you need to eat it on a regular, daily basis. Non-meat eaters, on the other hand, seem to be more efficient at absorbing non-haem iron (from grains, legumes, eggs, nuts and seeds) on a regular, daily basis.
For women with high energy requirements or who lose significant amounts of blood each menstrual cycle, maintaining good iron levels in the body is especially important. If you’re feeling run down, make an appointment to see your GP to check your iron levels, and never supplement with iron unless your doctor advises it.
The sunshine vitamin
There’s a reason sunshine makes us feel good. When our skin is exposed to sunlight, our body manufactures vitamin D. This essential vitamin has a number of important roles, including supporting healthy bones and teeth. It also helps with mood management, and low levels of vitamin D have been linked to clinical depression.
It’s easy to experience low vitamin D levels during the winter months. Since many of us have recently spent more time than ever indoors, it may be worth getting your vitamin D levels checked. If you’ve noticed your mood and energy levels are lower than usual, make an appointment to talk to your GP about this.
Are you moving enough?
It may seem counterintuitive, but not doing enough heart-pumping daily exercise can actually make fatigue worse. Not getting enough muscle movement, elevated blood glucose levels after eating and even too much sitting has an impact on blood flow and, ultimately, metabolic rate. This can also result in a general feeling of lethargy.
Aim to move for at least 30 minutes a day or take 10,000 steps a day. Even when you’re tired, exercising can actually give you more energy! Being active gets the blood pumping, releases feel-good endorphins and lowers the stress hormone cortisol. It can also improve the quality of your sleep.
How’s your sleep?
Sleep is complex cycle of different stages, so just because you’re getting plenty of shut-eye doesn’t mean you’re getting the right type of sleep. Sleep apnoea is a surprisingly common condition that causes sufferers to wake many times a night without ever realising it. Snoring can be a sign of sleep apnoea, but this is not always the case. If your iron and vitamin D levels are okay and you’re getting plenty of sleep, but still don’t wake up feeling refreshed, it may be time for a formal sleep assessment. Talk to your GP for advice.
What else could it be?
Your GP Can diagnose and confirm other possible causes for your extreme tiredness. These include:
Affecting one in 70 people, coeliac disease is when the gut gets damaged after gluten is consumed. As a result, your body is unable to properly absorb many of the nutrients in food, iron being one of them. If you cannot properly absorb nutritional goodness from food, extreme tiredness may result.
Having high blood sugar levels can cause extreme tiredness, and fatigue is a common symptom of undiagnosed diabetes. Visit diabetesaustralia.com.au to find out if you’re at risk.
Chronic fatigue syndrome
This is serious, ongoing tiredness that affects everyday life and doesn’t go away with sleep or rest. The exact cause is unknown, but a history of viral infections, immunity issues and hormonal imbalances can be a factor. If this sounds like you, talk to your GP.
This means your body isn’t making enough of the thyroid hormone, which can result in feeling extremely tired. Some people with an underactive thyroid also gain weight.
Depression and anxiety
These conditions will have an impact on how you feel and how much energy you have. Visit our help pages for local mental health services.
Eating for energy
What we eat on a daily basis has a big impact on how we feel, and many of us don’t get the minimum daily serves of nutrient rich-foods we need to support good mood. To help boost energy and feelings of wellbeing, aim to include plenty of the following foods in everyday meals:
- A good range of colourful fruits and vegetables
- Oily fish, such as sardines, mackerel and salmon
- Lean red meat
- Nuts and seeds
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir and miso.
Enjoying a healthy diet, with a focus on fresh, nutrient-rich whole foods, with minimal amounts of processed or fried foods, is an important step towards finding your energy again. A key part of eating well is planning. When you’re busy, having healthy meals and snacks to hand means you’re less likely to opt for high-calorie cafe or takeaway foods. Setting aside time each week to meal plan, shop online and even do some meal or snack prep will go a long way to keeping your healthy eating habits on track.
Your 24-hour energy menu
6.30am: Time to move
Drink a big glass of water to rehydrate upon waking, then get a head start on the day by doing 30–45 minutes of exercise, such as brisk walking or some yoga.
7.30am: Balanced breakfast
A combination of protein, carbs and healthy fats gives you the energy to power through your morning and also keeps you feeling full for longer. Recharge with muesli, yoghurt and fruit or eggs and avocado on wholegrain toast.
9.30am: Pit stop
Skip the muffin or biscuit with morning coffee, and drink a big glass of water instead.
10.45am: Morning munchies
Snack on fruit and a handful of nuts. Rich in energising B vitamins and fibre, nuts will keep you satisfied
12.30pm: Light lunch
Avoid a heavy meal as it will zap your energy while your body works to digest it. Instead, include complex carbs such as wholegrain bread or canned beans. A chicken and salad wholegrain wrap or a tuna salad with chickpeas will keep you feeling satisfied.
Don’t confuse hunger for thirst — time for another glass of water.
3.30pm: Snack happy
You can beat afternoon sleepiness by having a low-GI snack that won’t raise your blood sugar. Choose an energising snack featured above.
7pm: Protein-rich dinner
Aim to eat two hours before you go to bed so you have time to digest your meal. Eat a palm-sized piece of lean steak or salmon with complex carbs, such as sweet potato or brown rice, plus at least half a plate of colourful vegies.
9pm: Tea time!
A steaming cup of herbal tea is a good way to wind down before going to bed.
10.30pm: Lights out
Turn off all your electronic devices, including your mobile phone, laptop and TV. Aim to get between seven and eight hours of consecutive sleep.
5 energy-boosting snacks
- Nut-based snack bar Packed with protein and healthy fats, nut bars combine a little carbohydrate with a portion-controlled serve of nutrient-rich, assorted nuts and seeds.
- Cheese and crackers This savoury snack offers the perfect mix of protein for fullness and carbohydrate for energy. Opt for wholegrain crackers for a fibre boost.
- Protein bliss balls For those who prefer a homemade snack, a blend of oats or dates and protein-rich nuts and seeds creates a tasty, energy-rich snack.
- Peanut butter sandwich For a satisfying snack, team a 100 per cent nut spread with wholegrain or wholemeal bread for the perfect blend of tasty protein and good-quality carbs.
- Bananas Packed full of carbohydrates, vitamin B and magnesium, bananas are nature’s energy source that come with their own packaging!
Article sources and references
- Australian Psychological Society. 2014. Stress and wellbeing in Australia survey 2015. Accessed September 2021https://psychology.org.au/about-us/what-we-do/research/stress-wellbeing-how-australians-are-coping-wi
- Better Health Channel. 2020. Iron deficiency — adults. Accessed September 2021https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/iron-deficiency-adults
- Diaz et al. 2017. Patterns of sedentary behavior and mortality in US middle-aged and older adults: A national cohort study. Ann Intern Med. 167: 465–75.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28892811/
- Meat & Livestock Australia. 2021. Are you getting enough iron? Accessed September 2021https://www.mla.com.au/globalassets/mla-corporate/research-and-development/program-areas/human-nutrition/are_you_getting_enough_iron.pdf
- National Health and Medical Research Council. 2015. Eat for health — serve sizes. Accessed September 2021https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/food-essentials/how-much-do-we-need-each-day/serve-sizes