Wired but Tired?  How to keep your brain alert but calm!

Having been a consultant Naturopath for 28 years now, I find that one of the most common underlying complaints I see in clients – ranging from those in the corporate world to those coping with being a busy parent – is the feeling of having too much to cope with.  The end result is that they feel exhausted but also irritable and on edge.  The beauty of nutrition and herbal medicine is that we can help with that – though it always takes some lifestyle and dietary changes to get the balance right.

What you eat and drink is fundamental to how your body functions.  Food is the fuel that gives your body energy – if you don’t fuel your body, you won’t have energy for it to function on all levels.  Food also contains vitamins and minerals that are essential in the production of energy and also vital to the regulation of energy and our stress response.  What we need to do with our diet is to eat good nutritious food regularly.

Three nutritious meals every day is a great start.  If your life is so erratic that you are not doing this, bringing balance into your eating pattern is a good start to bringing balance into your life.  Protein is key to maintaining a good blood sugar balance, and therefore stabilising moods, as well as keeping you feeling satisfied and providing your body with nutrients.

Include protein in your breakfast – eggs are a great start to the day, yoghurt with some nuts and seeds, a good muesli containing nuts and seeds, good quality wholemeal rye toast with hommus and avocado, sardines or baked beans on toast.  If you eat a refined high sugar breakfast cereal for breakfast you will have very short lived energy and sugar cravings all day, combined with highs and lows of blood sugar levels, leading to highs and lows of moods.

To avoid an afternoon slump, cut down on the carbohydrates for lunch and stick with protein (meat, chicken, fish, egg, beans or legumes) and a salad or vegetables. Mid afternoon have a protein based snack if you are hungry such as a handful of nuts, or even a piece of chicken or tin of tuna. This should help keep your energy levels and moods on track for the afternoon.

Eat dinner as early as you can rather than straight before bed.  There is a lot of research around the benefits of fasting overnight – making as much time between dinner and breakfast as possible (at least 12 hours or more) – and how beneficial this is for the prevention of chronic health problems including cardiovascular disease.  Eating dinner early also gives your body a more restful and restorative sleep (it’s not spending all that time and energy on digesting!). A good sleep is so important.  Cutting back on alcohol will also help with a more refreshing sleep.  Many people think alcohol helps them sleep better, but it changes the sleep patterns and actually reduces the deeper more restorative part of the sleep cycle.

Remember to drink water!  If you are feeling thirsty then your body is already dehydrated – you need to drink water to prevent that feeling of thirst and dehydration.  The general recommendation is to drink 2L water per day.  Your brain is made up of approximately 75% water and even mild levels of dehydration have been shown to effect mood as well as cognitive function, including concentration and alertness.  If you are dehydrated this can cause lapses in attention and memory.  Try to drink water away from meals, as drinking with meals can dilute and flush away the digestive juices, leading to poor absorption of nutrients.

Note that caffeinated drinks do not count as water (although herbal teas do). Caffeine intake should not exceed two cups of coffee or tea per day. The negative effects of drinking too much caffeine are many and especially include contributing to the “tired but wired” feeling.  Caffeine has been shown to make people feel more stressed and it gives a “false” energy by overstimulating the nervous system and leading in the long term to further exhaustion and more reliance on that stimulating effect. Make sure you don’t have caffeine too late in the day, as it can interfere with sleep if consumed after 2.00pm.

The end product of constant stress is what we call adrenal exhaustion.  Your adrenal glands are responsible for providing stress hormone, and when they are constantly called upon, they become overworked, leading to a reduced ability to cope with stress. Certainly reducing stress levels helps with this, and there are also some wonderful herbal medicines called adaptogens, which help the body adapt to and cope with stress – the ginsengs fall into this category of herbs.  The adrenal glands also require large amounts of vitamin C, and this vitamin is also important for immune function.

B vitamins are essential to add to the repertoire for those who are wired and tired, as they are involved in the production of energy, the regulation of blood sugar levels and also they support the nervous system.  A deficiency of B group vitamins can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety. Another of the key nutrients to support and relax the nervous system and take the edge of stress is magnesium.

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