While I’m waiting for my new health insurance to kick in, I thought I’d look at a few over-the-counter means of combating dysthymia (mild, chronic depression) until I can talk to my doctor about it. I figure the two key symptoms to focus on are fatigue and mood. It can’t be a coincidence that “tired and grumpy” is as natural a combo as peanut butter and jelly, or R2D2 and C3P0.
Yes, unadulterated, non-caffeinated water is one of the simplest cures for low energy. I discovered this firsthand on a trip to Disneyworld, when I was hot and tired and ready to head back to the hotel for a nap in the early afternoon. On the way to the shuttle, I bought an incredibly expensive bottle of water to sip in the shade. No more than 10 minutes later, I was fully energized and ready to tackle Epcot Center! Nap prevented; adventure resumed. A study supported in part by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and a U.S. Army grant discovered that “dehydration was associated with negative mood, including fatigue and confusion,” so water could very well be listed in both the fatigue buster and mood booster categories. A general rule of thumb for women is about 2.5 liters a day (11 glasses), some of which can come from food (like watermelon) and beverages (coffee isn’t as dehydrating as you might think) in addition to plain old H20.
It’s practically a given that lack of sleep leads to fatigue. The National Sleep Foundation also says that short sleep duration is linked with “increased risk for psychiatric conditions including depression and substance abuse,” among other things (including car accidents). The average adult needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night — and if you get less, you acquire “sleep debt” that you pay for if you don’t pay it back later. A 2002 study showed that 39% of respondents got less than 7 hours of sleep per night on weekdays. A full 68% get less than 8 hours. That means that fully half the population is sleep deprived! While many people do have sleep disorders, I’m sure most of us could simply benefit from keeping a reasonable bedtime.
Interestingly, anecdotal evidence from FitBit users shows that the FitBit, one of my favorite health gadgets of all time, is surprisingly accurate at recording sleep efficiency. So if you’re not sure if your fatigue is due to lack of sleep or nighttime restlessness, FitBit could be a helpful tool.
While I’ve had both a biologist and a doctor tell me that vitamins basically result in expensive urine, I still consider a good multi as insurance against deficiencies in an otherwise crappy diet. Low potassium (though rarely diet related) can cause muscle fatigue and weakness. Deficiencies in both vitamins B and D can be related to chronic fatigue, depression, and pain. Iron deficiency anemia causes fatigue and shortness of breath, and depending on the severity and duration, can be life threatening. If you get a multi, avoid anything that has significantly more than 100% of your daily value of any single vitamin. At best, it’s a waste, as your body will simply filter and discard the excess as pee. At worst, you could overdose on fat-soluble vitamins such as A, B3, B6 or minerals such as iron.
Interestingly, in Food Rules, Michael Pollan points out that people who take multivitamins are often healthier than people who don’t, even though the result isn’t directly linked to the multivitamin itself. Apparently, the type of person who is likely to take a multi is the type of person who takes otherwise healthy measures in diet and lifestyle that increases their overall health. Pollan’s suggestion is to be the kind of person who would take a multivitamin… but to save your money, and not actually take a multivitamin.
If, despite your best efforts, you’re still sleep deprived, dehydrated, and relying on Vitamin Donut to get you through the morning, try caffeine. Caffeine will temporarily energize you, give you a mental edge, and even decrease pain during exercise, which makes it an excellent training aid. The problem is that your body quickly develops a tolerance to caffeine, making low doses less and less effective over time. I’m emotionally attached to my morning coffee, but I try to avoid drinking caffeine for the rest of the day, mostly to maintain a low caffeine tolerance so I can really use it when I need it (like on long runs and crazy deadlines). If caffeine makes you anxious, use less of it, or try a different kind of caffeine — tea instead of coffee, for example.
1. Fish or Flax Seed Oil
My brother initially recommended fish oil to me while he was studying biochemistry and working as a pharmacy tech, shortly before moving on to med school. A small study in 1999 showed that fish oil supplements improved symptoms of manic-depressive disorder. Patients with depression have lower levels of the omega-3 fatty acids found in both fish oil and flax seed oil. If you get fish oil capsules, pay attention to the dosage — the manic-depressive patients in that 1999 study took 10 grams a day for four months. While the doctor from the 1999 study recommends starting with a lower dosage than used in his research, the fish oil capsules I got from Whole Foods today are still only 1 gram (1,000 milligrams) per capsule! It may be worthwhile to get the actual oil rather than the capsules, but be careful about oil extracted from fish with possibly high mercury content. Tom Venuto from Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle* prefers Udo’s Choice Oil Blend to supplement your essential fatty acid intake, which they should carry at your local GNC. It contains nothing but plant-based oils, which eliminates the mercury issue.
*Yes, Venuto’s website is a scary mix of every annoying marketing tactic known to man, but the ebook itself is great.
2. St. John’s Wort
This herb has been shown to help in mild to moderate depression, but not in major depression. Part of its benefit could actually lie in the psychological effect of taking control of your own health. The same dosage issues exist with St. John’s Wort as with fish oil; 2 to 4 grams three times a day is the generally accepted dosage, but the supplement I found at Whole Foods only contained 250 milligrams per capsule. That’s 8 capsules three times a day to meet the typical dosage.
Ladies on birth control should skip this herb, however. Some research shows that it decreases the effectiveness of the pill — which would be an incredibly depressing outcome for an herb that’s supposed to alleviate depression!
Possible Medical Issues
Of course, you could hydrate, sleep, fuel and supplement your diet, exercise and meditate, write in a journal or talk to trusted friend and still be tired and grumpy. That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor. Low thyroid function, for example, can make you tired, depressed, and fat. That’s one of the first things I’m going to ask my doctor about, since it runs in my family. The good news in cases of hypothyroidism is that it’s easy to test for, and treatment is easy and effective once you and your doctor find the correct dose.
What are you favorite ways to beat fatigue and boost your mood?