Have You Lost the Spring in Your Step?
If you’re struggling to kick-start yourself in the morning, regularly experiencing a mid-afternoon energy slump or suffering from tiredness or fatigue throughout the day then don’t just assume that it’s because we’re heading into winter or that it must be due to your age or pressure of work. It might be time to take a look at your diet to see if this could be a factor. Lots of different nutrients play a part in the biochemical processes of energy production, but it’s not just about making sure we eat plenty of the relevant foods. External factors, such as lifestyle, stress and even the timing of our meals can all play a key part too.
Of course any excessive or unusual tiredness should result in a quick trip to see your GP to rule out any medical condition, but if general low energy is the problem, here are just a few areas where you might be going wrong.
Vitamin B12 deficiency
Signs and Symptoms
As well as persistent tiredness and lethargy, you may experience irritability, anxiety and headaches. Other associated symptoms include constipation, palpitations and sore or tender muscles. All the different B vitamins play a vital role in the chain reaction of energy production, so a deficiency across the board has a direct impact on energy levels but vitamin B12 plays a particularly important role, as it works with folic acid to regulate the formation of red blood cells and to carry oxygen to the cells. A deficiency in vitamin B 12 results in a condition known as pernicious anaemia1.
Dietary deficiency is an obvious area to consider as vitamin B12 is almost exclusively found in animal foods, which makes vegetarians and vegans particularly vulnerable. Although the body can store B12 for up to 5 years, problems will develop eventually if dietary deficiency is an issue. Chronic stress depletes all B vitamins, as well as suppressing levels of stomach acid which is vital for the absorption of vitamin B12. Digestive conditions such as Crohn’s disease can also affect absorption. High levels of caffeine and alcohol block the action of B vitamins. The risk factor increases with age and women are more prone to pernicious anaemia than men6.
Three meals to boost vitamin B12 status
– Sardine fishcakes: sardines are veritable powerhouse of vitamin B12, easily containing the recommended daily amount in one quick hit.
– Fortified tofu stir-fry with kelp and nori. Probably the best option for vegetarians – many soy products are fortified with vitamin B12 and sea vegetables are one of the few plant sources of B12.
– Steak and kidney pie: kidney, and other offal such as liver or heart, is probably the best source of B12 available, containing 15 times as much as steak or other red meat.
Signs and symptoms
If lethargy is coupled with symptoms such as headaches, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, sore tongue or itchy skin, then a lack of iron could be the issue here. Iron is responsible for the production of haemoglobin and the oxygenation of red blood cells, so if you’re low in iron, it’s not surprising that you feel pretty awful2. Dietary iron comes in two versions: haem iron, found in animal foods that originally contained haemoglobin, such as meat or fish, and non-haem iron found in plant sources. Haem iron is more easily absorbed by the body than non-haem iron3.
Optimal levels of stomach acid are required for iron to be absorbed, and stomach acid can easily be suppressed by chronic stress or regular use of antacids4. Heavy periods are an obvious contributory factor, but bear in mind that conversely, iron deficiency can also cause heavy periods5, leading to a vicious cycle of fatigue. If you rely more on non-heme iron, then you need to pay particular attention to high levels of tannins, found in tea, oxalates found in foods such as spinach or rhubarb or phosphates found in sodas, as these can all block the action of non-heme iron in the body6.
Three meals to boost iron levels
– Warm chicken liver salad – this is the single best source of iron you can get, providing almost the entire recommended daily amount in one serving and a great energy boost.
– Grilled mackerel with roasted vegetables – it’s not all about red meat, as mackerel actually contains 3 times as much iron as beef or lamb.
– Red pepper and tomato salad with pumpkin seeds. It may be non-haem iron, but pumpkin seeds still contain more iron per 100g than beef and the absorption is enhanced by the high levels of vitamin C in the red pepper (twice as much as an orange).
Blood Sugar Imbalance
Signs and Symptoms
Rather than general tiredness, a blood sugar imbalance is likely to affect energy levels at specific times of the day. If you commonly experience a mid-afternoon slump or you have no problem dropping off to sleep but struggle to stay asleep, or perhaps you wake up feeling excessively tired then blood sugar management could be an area to explore. If this is associated with cravings for caffeine, sugar or carbs, then there is definitely work to be done
Unsurprisingly, a diet that’s high in sugar, refined carbohydrate (white bread, white rice, white pasta) and stimulants such as caffeine or alcohol is going to cause a blood sugar imbalance, and when blood sugar drops stress hormones are released, affecting quality of sleep and creating powerful cravings for sugar or stimulant to redress the balance. But how good are you at spotting the hidden sugar in your diet that could be affecting your blood sugar? Did you know that a couple of glasses of orange juice have the same level of sugar as a can of Coke? Watch out if you’re smugly snacking on low-fat fruit yoghurts, as these can contain up to 5 teaspoons of sugar per small 125g pot and if your 5-a-day is exclusively made up of fruit then you could be heading for trouble there too. A balance of protein and fibre with every meal and snack is the way to balance blood sugar – if you have a cereal for breakfast and a salad or vegetable soup for lunch then you could be missing out on valuable protein and setting yourself up for an energy slump later in the day.
Three meals to balance blood sugar
– Poached egg with wholemeal toast – a perfect blend of protein and fibre (complex carbohydrate) to get you started in the morning. Protein is hard to digest, slows down the release of fibre and provides sustained energy levels, keeping you going for longer
– Lentil and bacon soup with wholemeal bread – lentils are an excellent source of vegetable protein as well as being rich in fibre
– Grilled salmon with brown rice and steamed vegetables – wholegrain foods such as brown rice will help maintain steady blood sugar levels
Signs and symptoms
Every cell in the body relies on water to function correctly, which is why dehydration can have a direct impact on your energy levels, and if you’re not getting enough water in your diet, you may experience anything from general lethargy to serious exhaustion. Other common symptoms include headaches, poor concentration, dry eyes (and dry skin), dark yellow urine, rapid heart rate, loss of elasticity in the skin, constipation and irritability. Studies have shown that just 2% dehydration can affect concentration, as well as impairing optimum physical performance7.
The most common cause is simply not drinking enough water or taking in fluid via other sources, such as vegetables. Vomiting and diarrhoea can drastically affect hydration levels, and excessive perspiration due to intense exercise or exposure to high temperatures can also play a significant role in dehydration.
Three ways to manage hydration
– Keep an eye on the colour of your urine to help you know how much you should be drinking: you should be aiming for a pale straw colour most of the time. If it’s too dark, then that indicates dehydration. Completely clear suggests you may be overhydrating, which can affect mineral balance in the body.
– If the thought of drinking water all the time is not that tempting, try to liven things up by mixing it with different cordials, such as elderflower or lime, or experimenting with different flavours of herbal or fruit tea.
– Vegetables are full of water, so increasing your vegetable to intake to 5 per day could really boost hydration and comes with all the fringe benefits of B vitamins, antioxidants and fibre.
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