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Why we are always so tired

Posted Sep 19 2008 3:59pm
It is a rare person who has not complained about being tired. And interestingly, most of time, tiredness comes not from physical exertion but from mental and emotional activity. Sure, you feel tired after a long walk, a vigorous workout at the gym, several hours of yard work, running after toddlers in a playground or cleaning the garage. But this type of tiredness usually pleases because it means you have been using your body and now deserve a rest. What is so puzzling is why you also feel tired when you have been relatively inert physically. Some of the reasons are obvious: lack of sleep, hunger, recycled air, dehydration, being ill or in recovery, or taking certain medications. But how to explain the tiredness the 3rd grade teacher feels when she leaves the classroom, the exhaustion of the individual trying to manage a busy doctor’s office or an airline agent dealing with delayed or overbooked flights? One explanation is stress. The mental and emotional costs of dealing with work, family, and social problems leaves a lot of us feeling exhausted. A client told me that one of the most exhausting days of his life was when he spent 8 hours giving a deposition for a court case. “Not only was it taxing mentally, it was extremely stressful. I felt ‘brain-dead’ afterward. All I wanted to do was go home and go to sleep.” “Is there anything we do to increase your recovery from mental and emotion?” I asked this question of a colleague whose research deals with maintenance of cognitive function during long periods of challenging mental activity. His answer surprised me. “Caffeine”, he said. “Drink coffee or a caffeinated soft drink. The caffeine stimulates the brain and allows us to recover from mental exhaustion and keep on working.” But he also went on to say that if we want to bounce back from a bout of stressful activity without remaining in a state of high mental stimulation, there were two things we could do: Eat carbohydrates and exercise. Since he and I had done research on carbohydrates many years ago I wasn’t surprised at his answer but I asked him how it fit with exercise. “Usually people who are emotionally or mentally fatigued find it difficult to exercise,” he said. “But we know that exercise makes people feel more energetic, probably because it increases blood flow and body heat. Eating carbohydrate increases vigor and decreases feelings of fatigue because of the increase in brain serotonin that follows carbohydrate consumption. So if you can get people to feel less tired, they will be more willing to move their bodies.” His answer makes sense. Caffeine, especially late in the day, may be incompatible with falling asleep later on. So caution is advised in using caffeine as a brain stimulant. However, eating a carbohydrate snack such as a low-fat granola bar, pretzels, Fig Newtons, or half a bagel and then 20 minutes or so later (when it has been digested) doing something physically vigorous should boost energy levels and restore your mental and emotional vigor.
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