We are human and while we can fall into the trap of treating ourselves like robots, as humans at risk of injury and accident, the recovery (there’s that eight-letter word again) journey is an individual experience that can’t be hurried, which is why allowing sufficient time to recover is important because of one very important factor. Fatigue.
Fatigue is one of the biggest challenges and common frustrations to full recovery, yet frequently ignored or downplayed.
You might have been signed off as “fit for work” but lingering fatigue can remain an issue because of pain, difficulties sleeping at night, or worrying about getting mentally and physically back up to speed with your usual tasks, especially if you’ve had an extended period away from the workplace. Which is why fatigue needs to be factored in as a safety issue.
Medication packets warn us that taking the drug contained “may make you drowsy and affect your ability to operate machinery.” But any form of fatigue has the same effect on our brain and thinking capacity. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain used for higher order thinking including decision-making, planning and judgement is especially vulnerable to the impact of fatigue. This is because it is an especially energy hungry part of the brain requiring not just the correct fuel to top up those mental energy tanks but also sufficient time to attend to those renewable energy resources including time out for regular brain breaks, exercise, sleep and effective stress management.
It is a safety hazard because it leads to daytime sleepiness, and the first insight to be lost when tired is our ability recognise the fact. Which is why driving when fatigued is so hazardous. Even if you’ve noticed you are weary, rather than choosing to stop, we wind down the car window for a blast of cold air or turn up the music on the radio to keep ourselves awake. Sadly, this does nothing to improve the cognitive skills required for safe driving and results instead in a cold ear, noise stress and a greatly increased risk of having a car accident.
It’s not unusual to feel tired when we’re sick. Associate Professor in Neurology David Raizen believes sleep is vital to recovery. His research in roundworms revealed how sickness induces the release of certain neuropeptides that promote sleep to provide time for cellular stress recovery. Further studies are now required to see if this holds true for humans and other animals.
Combating fatigue begins with acknowledging it’s normal to feel tired during illness and recovery and to use the following strategies to help restore energy and vitality levels.
- Get enough sleep.
If your body is telling you you’re tired, then going to bed 20-30 minutes earlier than usual is a good way to top up sleep levels. If daytime fatigue remains a nuisance, a 20-minute power nap taken in the early afternoon can act as a great cognitive refresher to boost mood, levels of alertness and performance for several hours.
- Move more.
While the last thing you might feel like doing when tired is doing exercise, the paradox is that low-intensity exercise i.e. walking has been shown to reduce fatigue symptoms by 65%. The effect is especially marked in those who are normally fairly sedentary. What was also interesting was that in this study those who undertook more moderate intensity exercise saw a lower level of improved energy of 49%, suggesting that less is more when recovering from illness.
- Refuel right.
Healthy food choices abound but when tired we’re more likely to reach out for those foods we associate with giving us a quick energy boost which are often poor in nutrient value and high in trans fats, sugar and salt. Sticking to the Mediterranean style diet based on leafy greens, plenty of vegetables, lean protein, fruits and whole grains is a far better way to restore energy nutritionally.
Keeping hydrated with water also plays a vital role. Thirst is an unreliable indicator of hydration levels. You know you’re drinking enough if your urine is a pale straw colour.
- Still the mind.
Learning relaxation techniques help to reduce stress and restore energy. This could be using simple breathing exercises, meditation, yoga or Tai Chi.
- Connect with others.
Socialising, spending time with family and friends is important to well-being at every level. Whether sharing a meal, watching a movie or going to a comedy show, it’s about staying engaged with the world and retaining a curiosity for what’s going on beyond our own set of circumstances. This helps to keep things in perspective and encourages a can-do attitude that boosts energy levels too.
Dr. Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner, speaker and author of Future Brain (Wiley) specialising in cognitive health and mental performance www.drjennybrockis.com