7 ways to get your energy back and defeat winter fatigue

Last night I dreamt I was watching athletes take part in a high-stakes race. With

Last night I dreamt I was watching athletes take part in a high-stakes race. With moments to go, the lead sprinter collapsed, unable to crawl even the few inches to the finish line. When I recalled the dream this morning, I burst out laughing. You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to parse the meaning of that bit of nocturnal symbolism.

I’m tired. I’m more than tired; I’m drained.

Why? Months of anxiety, the endless new complexities of Covid life (have I forgotten my mask? Am I allowed to meet a friend in a café?), home-schooling and too many nights on the sofa sipping Merlot have combined with increasingly erratic sleep patterns to leave me dragging myself through each Groundhog Day.

I’m far from alone.

As the year draws to a close, friends report growing levels of lockdown lethargy.

“I fall asleep at 1am and ping awake at 6am every day, worrying about my husband’s collapsing travel business and fretting about elderly relatives,” says one. “I don’t feel as if I’m working from home as much as living at work,” says another. “Zoom calls leave me mentally exhausted and the bedroom is now my office.”

This epidemic of exhaustion is not entirely down to the pandemic. Studies show that people tend to sleep an hour longer in winter than summer. One US study concluded: ‘There was a general tendency for all groups to eat and sleep more and to gain weight in the winter.’ However, the stress of the new normal is making things worse. A new study from UK nutrition company Revvies has found that 37 per cent of people say that despite being less active than ever, their energy levels are the lowest they have ever been.

But there are healthy ways to lift ourselves out of a seasonal slump. Experts offer the best ways to recharge your body and spirit so you can sparkle this Christmas.

1. Trip the light fantastic

If your commute still consists of padding from bed to desk and staying there, that’s a recipe for sluggishness and gloom. Researchers have found that less light exposure by day leads to broken, restless sleep. As a friend complains, “Living in what feels like constant darkness is making me feel permanently jetlagged.”

Dr Neil Stanley, director of sleep science at Sleepstation.org.uk, says that daylight clears melatonin, the tiredness hormone produced when it gets dark. It also has an energising, anti-depressant effect because it triggers production of the brain’s happy chemicals dopamine and serotonin. While all daylight exposure is helpful, morning light appears key to keeping our body clocks on track, so we feel livelier by day and sleep better at night.

“Throw open your curtains the minute you wake up,” says Stanley. “And don’t start work without exercising outside first. Turning the lights on inside isn’t enough. Even the gloomiest winter day is many times brighter than artificial lighting”.

2. Comfort and joy

A German study found that ‘lack of joy’ was the key element that that linked stress with tiredness. For many of us, our key source of joy comes from being with friends and family. A study published the British Journal of Health Psychology reported that people who were most socially isolated people during the pandemic also felt the most exhausted.

Social media doesn’t count – in fact, it can make you feel lonelier. Instead pick up the phone or wrap up warm and meet friends outdoors. Clinical psychologist Dr Meg Arroll says: “Do whatever makes you smile, laugh or simply feel good. Don’t worry if this seems trivial; my go-to is silly video clips.”

3. Eat right to feel bright

Your mince pie habit could be making you feel less than lively, says nutritionist Kim Pearson. “Diets high in starchy carbohydrates and sugar lead to fluctuating blood sugar levels and subsequently, fluctuating energy levels,” she says. “Each meal should include a moderate portion of healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, nuts or seeds and fill at least half of your plate with vegetables or salad.” Fatty foods interfere with sleep so “leave at least three hours between your last meal and bedtime,” she adds. 

And ditch that nightcap too. One in five people surveyed by the charity Alcohol Change UK admitted drinking as a way to handle stress during lockdown, but Pearson warns: “A drink might make us feel drowsy, but it can compromise sleep quality later on, making us wake up in the early hours.”

4. Vitality vitamins

New research from the Health and Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS) has found that most midlifers don’t get enough B vitamins in their diet – a trend that has worsened over the past two decades. “B vitamins help reduce tiredness and fatigue, says dietician Dr Carrie Ruxton, who works with the HSIS. “Make sure you’re eating eggs, dairy products, legumes and seeds regularly. A glass of orange juice is also a source of folate – a key B vitamin, which many of us lack. Low levels of iron also affect energy. Shortness of breath can be a sign that your iron is too low. Top up with a supplement and, if you’re concerned, ask your GP for a blood test to check your iron levels. You may need a high dose prescription iron supplement.

Pearson adds: “ The government recommends we all take a vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter months. Low iron is more common in women who have periods. B12 deficiency is more prevalent in vegetarians, vegans, those taking PPIs (a common class of medications prescribed to suppress stomach acid), people with gut disorders and those over 60.”

5. Find your exercise sweet spot

Fitness trainer Tyrone Brennand, author of the forthcoming book Be the Fittest, helps keep celebrities such as model David Gandy and Made in Chelsea’s Binky Felstead in shape. He says: “My clients often complain more of tiredness in winter. But they always feel 100 per cent better after a workout.”

However, he warns that jumping into overly intense exercise can make fatigue worse – or lead to people giving up. “Be sensitive to your body,” he says. “Before you move to cardio, spend 10 to 20 minutes on a warm-up with dynamic stretches, including yoga moves such as downward dog pose and spinal twists, to relax tense, tight muscles.” He adds: “Stay hydrated when you exercise; it makes a huge difference to your energy.”

6. And breathe…

Lockdown anxieties put us in chronic fight-or-flight mode. “This drains our energy” says Arroll. “Deep breathing can halt the stress response. “Start by placing your left hand on your chest and the other on your tummy, with your little finger resting just above your belly button. As you breathe in for a count of three, try to keep your chest still as your belly rises. As you exhale for a count of three, feel your right hand dip down towards your spine while saying the word ‘calm’ in your mind.”

7. Keep a ‘hope journal’

Mulling over the difficulties of the past year can contribute to winter tiredness, says Arroll. “To help refocus the mind, jot down your hopes on a daily basis. This will also boost positive mood and energy.”    

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