I am amazed at babies! Sure I’m biased by my six-month-old daughter, Anna, who daily astounds me with her personality, adaptability and ability to make anyone smile. Over the past six months I’ve learned the importance of “getting back to basics.” I’m also appreciating all the innate things that babies do before we adults can influence their behaviors with alternative agendas. I didn’t plan on writing an entire article about Anna, and in reality what you’re about to read is not all about her, but babies in general and what we can all learn from them to not only live healthier lives, but to combat the most common complaint I hear in my practice by far: fatigue.
We’ve all experienced it at some point. In my own life, immediately following Anna’s birth, fatigue became a way of life. Check that, exhaustion became a way of life. Middle of the night feedings disrupted our sleep, which interrupted a regular exercise routine, which was all compounded by an unpredictable diet. My wife, Jane, and I were pretty beat up by the schedule and in the midst of it all we felt like we’d never get back to “normalcy.” Luckily for us Anna started sleeping through the night at 7 weeks of age!
Watching her I believe we can all learn techniques from a baby’s simple and natural way of living that would combat our own fatigue.
Here are 3 simple things you can do to easily beat fatigue:
1. Keep a Regular Schedule
Now of course I’m not suggesting you nap throughout the day like a baby, but with a consistent nightly sleeping schedule, your body’s natural circadian rhythm is easily maintained. The circadian rhythm is a term that describes the natural sleep/wake/eating schedule that we all have and are supposed to follow. It’s a complex system that is regulated by your exposure to light (or lack thereof) as well as a number of hormones, including melatonin and cortisol. These two hormones have a direct effect on core body temperature and blood sugar regulation, respectively. The circadian rhythm is much like the sun which predictably rises and sets each day. Your body mimics this predictability to live effectively and efficiently. However, with our brilliant intellect and ingenuity, we’ve invented ways to live outside of this natural cycle. We have lights during darkness and food at our disposal any time of the day or night. Unfortunately, these wonderful conveniences make it easier to stray from a regular eating and sleeping pattern. Then, as a result of poor sleep and fluctuations to normal blood sugar levels the circadian rhythm is disrupted and fatigue begins to set in. I recommend you get at least 7-9 hours of sleep and do your best to go to bed at the same time every night. With this consistency, the body is able to maintain a normal circadian rhythm that will ultimately help you combat fatigue during waking hours.
2. The Most Important Meal
So far, Anna has enjoyed nothing but nature’s perfect baby food: breast milk. Cleverly designed to contain the proper amounts of fats, carbohydrates and proteins in a great package which makes it available for easy feedings, bre*ast milk provides all the nutrition babies need for at least the first six months of life. There is ample literature to suggest that feeding babies every 3-4 hours allows them to be more relaxed and easy going because they consciously know that food will be coming, plus their digestive systems will not be overtaxed with too frequent or too spread out of feedings.
Finding this proper nutritional balance for children and adults is also critical for good health. As with babies, I frequently recommend my patients eat smaller meals every 3-4 hours throughout the day to stabilize blood sugar and prevent tiredness.
And, when it comes to preventing fatigue during the day, breakfast truly is the most important meal. Our normal metabolic functions slow down throughout the night so we don’t get hungry as we sleep. We wake each morning having not eaten anything for 8-12 hours, depending on what time we had dinner the night before. A healthy breakfast helps balance cortisol and therefore prevents you from a mid-morning energy crash from dropping blood sugar levels. A study published earlier this year demonstrated the cognitive benefit that test subjects had when they consumed at least a 450-calorie breakfast of both protein and fiber. Another group of scientists studied over 200 medical students and monitored their performance after skipping breakfast. Not surprisingly, those students who skipped breakfast had an overall increase in fatigue.
3. Belly Breathing
With the rhythmic movement of their little bellies and the innocent, gentle noises they make, there are few things in this world more peaceful than watching a baby sleep. Babies naturally take deep breaths that originate from their bellies, with both inhaling and exhaling taking on a slow and relaxed state. We average about 15,500 breaths a day and for every single one of them, we don’t even have to think about it! It’s a natural action. But unfortunately, as we move out of childhood and into adulthood, life gets busier and our breathing becomes more hurried and shallow, coming less from the muscles designed to facilitate breathing (i.e., the diaphragm) and causing an increase in accessory muscle tension. Because the lower third portion of your lungs has the most efficient oxygen exchange sites, this type of shallow breathing prevents you from getting all the necessary oxygen your body needs, causing fatigue.
It’s important to get as much oxygen to those lower lungs as possible! A famous study done in the early 1980’s demonstrated that adults who spent as little as 10 minutes a day focusing on their breathing had better energy and greater work performance. You can do that. Just take 10 minutes each day and focus on improving your belly breathing. Sit in a comfortable location, with your spine straight and shoulders back, breathe in deep through your nose for a count of seven seconds. Allow your belly to expand outwards as you inhale. Then hold your breath for a count of four seconds. Finally, exhale for a count of nine seconds, this time moving your belly inward. The exhale is a little longer than the inhale, which is done on purpose. When you move to the next inhale cycle, you’ll notice some reflexive support from all the muscles that are necessary for proper belly breathing.
Follow these simple steps, and you’ll be as happy as little Anna and smiling at the world with plenty of energy! If you want to get a head start, switch to decaf coffee and I’ll see you in the gym!
In good health,
Dr. Phil Wazny