Feeling Tired? Try Changing Your Diet
- Written By:Dr. Uma Naidoo, MD
Tired? If a midday energy slump has made its way onto your schedule, know that you’re not alone. Feeling fatigued can be the result of numerous lifestyle, health, and environmental factors. Fortunately, one major piece of the solution may be right in your hands—or shall I say, at the end of your fork! As a Nutritional Psychiatrist, I have seen firsthand the profound impact that choosing the right foods can have on our energy, physical health, and mental fitness. Read on to see my recommendations for fighting fatigue with my very favorite tool: food.
Go for complex carbs
Carbs just might be the most celebrated and vilified nutrient when it comes to energy, mental clarity, and even weight management. Luckily, we don’t need to cut them out entirely from our diet to improve symptoms of fatigue, but it’s important to understand how different carbs foods work in the body. As we eat more carbohydrates, especially simple ones like sugary donuts and white bread, our insulin levels climb. When these insulin levels peak after eating, our blood sugar levels can bottom out, leading to a foggy brain and tired body. My solution to this is choosing high-quality, low-glycemic index carbohydrates, such as fiber-rich vegetables and whole grains such as buckwheat and quinoa. Complex carbs like these create a steadier release of sugar into your blood, fending off fatigue and keeping your body and brain energized even longer. In doing so, we optimize nutrients that keep our blood sugar levels steady: both protein and fiber are known to improve blood sugar control. Quinoa is a complex carb also rich in protein and fiber. Plus our gut microbes thrive on fiber, so a fiber-rich meal means extra love for your gut!
Fill up on colorful veggies
Where high-fat, high-carb meals have shown to contribute to fatigue as well as increased inflammatory markers in the blood after eating, going plant-rich may be key: a diet rich in vegetables and healthy fats, like olive oil, is linked with less sleepiness through the day. Avoiding inflammation-inducing foods may lead to better energy, as research indicates that blocking inflammatory markers contributed to a reduction in fatigue after eating. On the other hand, the benefits of consuming a variety of phytonutrient-rich fruits and veggies are boundless. The health-boosting compounds in colorful produce prevent fatigue, are anti-inflammatory and fiber nourishes the gut, which in turn, encourages a healthy brain and mood. Start with adding some colorful veggies on a bed of leafy greens as a building block!
Watch your caffeine
Caffeine can provide a great boost of alertness, but may leave you feeling a “crash” when it wears off. Be wary of those energy or focus drinks on the market, as they are often overloaded with caffeine and sugar. Choosing black coffee or antioxidant-rich green tea (a personal favorite!) may be an excellent means of taking in a bit of caffeine along with energy—and mood-boosting nutrient compounds to keep us feeling our best.
Of course, this warrants a brief note on sleep. If you’re already running on empty, chances are your ability to metabolize sugars and even your normal appetite may be impaired—and leave you reaching for fatigue-causing sugary treats for a “boost.” Practicing good sleep hygiene and getting a solid 7-8 hours of sleep per night helps our body rest, replenish, and wake up feeling energized throughout the day. Just one night of adequate sleep can reverse the negative effects of days of sleep deprivation on your metabolism!
A note on alcohol
Did you know that alcohol actually functions by depressing the central nervous system? In fact, just one drink can make you feel drowsy and dampen your mood, especially if you hadn’t gotten a good night’s rest the night prior. As always, enjoy responsibly, and in moderation.
Be on the lookout for unknown allergies and undiagnosed conditions
Fatigue, brain fog and unpleasant GI symptoms after a gluten-containing meal can be a presentation of celiac disease, a condition where the immune system mounts an attack on the digestive tract due to gluten. However, even in folks without celiac disease, feelings of fatigue after consuming gluten may indicate the presence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, as new research is finding. In addition, undiagnosed SIBO, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease may also contribute to decreased energy. Being evaluated for conditions as these may be crucial to fending off symptoms of fatigue.
Capitalize on your Circadian rhythms
While our bodies are extraordinarily resilient, they do function best with a regular schedule. Research has shown that eating at irregular times, as well as skipping breakfast, is associated with increased fatigue. Having consistent meal times can ensure a steady balance of energy, improve our mood, and even train our hunger.
Consult with a medical professional
While diet is powerful, it’s also important to have a thorough medical examination for causes of fatigue. Feeling constantly exhausted can be a sign of an underlying medical condition, so best to speak to your doctor too.
Tap into your body intelligence
One of my Pillars of Nutritional Psychiatry, developing body intelligence is key to understanding your own body’s cues in response to what you eat. Sometimes even if you don’t have an allergy or intolerance, look out for associated symptoms post-meal, especially if you feel fatigued or less mentally sharp. Limiting those foods may lead to better energy. In turn, as we form new habits of eating, and introduce more, colorful, nourishing fruits and vegetables, mindfully observing the benefits in how we feel reinforces our ability to maintain these healthy habits. When we are consciously selecting foods that energize the body and uplift the mind , we are increasingly empowered to source our vitality from our diet.
Fatigue is a common experience, and at times, can feel unsurmountable. However, choosing the foods that best serve our body and mind can do a world of good for our energy. I hope that these tidbits, based upon the principles of Nutritional Psychiatry, offer practical, joyful, and delicious solutions for optimizing our energy through diet.
Dr. Uma Naidoo MD, an awarded board-certified psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, professional chef, nutrition specialist and author of the recently released "This is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD and More." Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at @drumanaidoo.