How to beat the post-holiday blahs
January 2nd. This is the day most people vow to turn over a new leaf – to eat better, drink less, work out more, the list goes on. Usually, this is prompted by a holiday season whose cup has turned into a waterfall of indulgent behavior: eggnog, cocktail party canapés, turkey dinner with all the trimmings (sometimes more than one). These can quickly leave you looking and feeling like a beached whale. Putting on your skinny jeans results in an emotional meltdown not experienced since the final episode of Sex and the City, and though you desperately want to do something about it, you have zero energy. In fact, the mere mention of hitting the gym gives you a level of anxiety you can’t remember feeling since your first date, or last year when you made the same “feel better, look better” commitment.
Making a verbal commitment is one thing, but actions speak louder than words, so without wasting any more time let’s get down to the root of things – upping those energy levels. Most exercise advocates will tell you confidently that one of the best side effects of regular workouts is increased energy. Even though the first few sessions may be a far cry from enjoyable, with patience and persistence, you will see and feel results. There may be a deeper underlying issue however, if you find that in spite of better diet and lifestyle, the lethargic feeling that should have left around week two of the New Year is still very much present. Enter the adrenal glands.
These little guys (there are two of them) sit perched atop your kidneys and are responsible for pumping out a handful of hormones. Let’s first examine cortisone and cortisol, which are produced in the adrenal cortex. These two hormones, known as the glucocorticoids, are involved in maintaining normal cell metabolism as well as helping your body through times of stress. They do this by increasing blood glucose levels.
Just inside the cortex lies the adrenal medulla, whose cells release epinephrine (more commonly known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). Together, they are referred to as catecholamines, which are involved in the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system, to short term stressors. To simplify it, think of the glucocorticoids as the team that helps get you through a bad break-up, and the catecholamines as the ones who hold your hand through a job interview.
Now consider the holiday season: last minute shopping, endless work functions and soirées, end-of-year deadlines, overindulgence in the food and drink department and sometimes hundreds of miles of travel. All these things can lead to your adrenals working overtime just to get you through. The end result? Burnout – otherwise known as adrenal fatigue. The good news is that with a little TLC in the nutrition and lifestyle departments, you can nurse your adrenals back to fighting form.
First things first: ditch the CAS (Caffeine, Alcohol and Sugar). Caffeine and alcohol are stimulants that can temporarily mask the signs of adrenal fatigue, and in the long run may contribute to even more deterioration. Excess sugar consumption can trigger an over-release of insulin, bringing blood sugar levels down too low (hypoglycemia), which in turn will trigger a release of the glucocorticoids. Over time, this pattern can place undue stress on the adrenals.
This vitamin is essential when it comes to the health of the entire nervous system. Known as the energy vitamin, it plays a vital role in the body’s utilization of fats, proteins and carbohydrates, as well as aiding iron function. The best sources are animal proteins, with fermented foods such as tempeh and miso containing smaller amounts. If you’re vegetarian, supplementation or intramuscular injections administered by your GP may be necessary.
B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
Known as the anti-stress vitamin, “it supports the adrenal glands to increase production of cortisone and other adrenal hormones to help counteract stress and enhance metabolism,”(Haas 119). Luckily this vitamin is widely available in a variety of foods. Great sources include fish, poultry, egg yolks, avocados, sweet potatoes, green peas and cheese. A diet high in processed and refined foods may result in deficiency, in which case supplementation is advisable.
It’s already well known for its role in immune support and as a vital antioxidant, but vitamin C also supports the adrenals and is involved in the production of both epinephrine and norepinephrine (Haas, 141). Great sources include citrus fruits, red and green peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, asparagus and dark leafy greens.
In many cases, low energy levels can be linked to poor absorption of nutrients. High stress levels and a diet low in protein and high in alcohol, caffeine and sugar can result in decreased enzyme production. If this is the case, then taking digestive enzyme supplements before meals could be a good jump-start for your digestion, and in turn help you absorb those much needed nutrients. Visit your local health food store to get the proper help in choosing the one that’s best for you.
Introducing a green powder drink into your diet could be just the jolt you’re looking for. Common ingredients in these drinks include spirulina, chlorella, kelp and wheat grass, all of which work together to help purify and rejuvenate the body, increase energy levels and prevent disease through their antioxidant function. Try having one of these instead of your mid-afternoon caffeine fix or mix it into a smoothie in the morning.
Necessary for healthy bowel function, a diet high in fiber will help rid your body of excess toxins as it scrapes through your intestines. This act alone will help to increase energy levels as you’re lightening your load. To boot, one of the best (and tastiest) sources of fiber is brown rice, which is chock full of very important B vitamins. Other great sources include whole grains such as oatmeal and quinoa, raw nuts and seeds, dark leafy greens and fruits with their skins such as apples and peaches.
Every cell in our body needs water, and in my experience it seems that many people struggle to get the recommended daily dose of 8 cups. If you’re someone who scrapes by on only a few, you’ll be amazed to see what hitting the minimum mark will do for your energy levels. It will hydrate your muscles so that they function better at the gym, will work with fiber to move things along through your pipes and it’s one of the best cures for energy-sapping headaches. The best part? It’s free! So what are you waiting for?
On top of the above-mentioned tips, the general rules still apply: make sure you allow yourself a little bit of downtime every day, whether it’s a 10-minute meditation or curling up with a book. Our cortisol levels naturally fall throughout the day, with the lowest levels being during the night when we’re asleep (theoretically). Unfortunately, with an increase in shift work and daily stressors, these levels can remain elevated, and over time lead to fatigue. Making an effort to relax in the evening will allow you to get the proper rest required to stay motivated in the year ahead.