Donna lies awake at 2:30 a.m., her heart racing. Worried thoughts churn through her mind— meetings, errands, work, shopping—how will she get everything done? At 3:30 she moves to the couch and turns on the television. She drifts in and out of sleep until she hears the alarm in the other room.
Her husband, Steve, rolls over and hits the snooze bar. It's 5:00 a.m. Although he's slept for seven hours, Steve feels exhausted. His head is pounding, but he has to get to work to prepare for an afternoon meeting. Two cups of coffee and a quick shower later, Steve heads out the door. He grabs breakfast at the drive-through and takes some aspirin for his headache.
Donna is never hungry for breakfast. She drinks a diet soda on her way to work, once the kids are off to school. Donna is naturally slender, but drinking diet soda allows extra calories for a candy bar in the afternoon. Donna loves chocolate.
Steve hits the drive-through again at lunch. He orders a burger, fries, and a large cola. Before his meeting, his headache returns. A cup of coffee and a leftover roll from the break room get him through, along with three more aspirin. But he wonders why he feels so irritated with everyone around the conference table.
Donna eats a small salad for lunch. By 3:30 a.m. she is so tired that she can barely function. All she can think about is getting to the vending machine for a candy bar and another diet soda.
When Donna and Steve arrive home at 6:30, both feel like zombies. Donna starts dinner and snaps at Steve to lend a hand.
Steve opens a bag of potato chips and complains that there's never any good food in the house. He'd rather order out. The fight is on. The evening ends in disaster.
If this describes an all-too-typical weekday at your house, you're not alone. But help may be nearer than you think, according to Pamela Smith, registered dietician and author of the book, The Energy Edge (Harper Resource).
"The truth is, people are working at a frenzied and a frazzled pace," Pamela says. "Couples come together only when everything else on the to-do list is done. Coming home at the end of the day, they're not just exhausted—they're tightly wired and their blood sugar is in the basement. It causes terrible explosiveness."
In her work as a nutritionist, Pamela consults with clients from all walks of life—corporate executives, professional athletes, teachers, and retirees. She reports that many of them share a similar heartfelt cry: "I am out of energy and out of control of this thing called life!"
Pamela suggests that while medical conditions, sleep problems, and side effects from medication must be ruled out by a doctor, the cause of relentless fatigue is often predictable—a chronic lack of self-care.
"We push our bodies through the day without the right food as though we were cars that could run without gasoline," Pamela says. "We aren't getting enough rest and are being overcome by the stresses of living life. Yet we are too busy or too tired to do anything about it."
The result? A cavernous weariness that produces hopelessness and depression, while stifling the ability to laugh, enjoy relationships, and think creatively.
"Chronic fatigue presents a terrible attack on marriages," says Pamela. "But so much of the struggle that couples experience is just a response to their energy crisis."
Do you and your spouse function near the limits of your physical and emotional endurance most days? Do you find yourselves routinely doing battle over little things that aren't a problem when you're both feeling rested? If so, it may be time to stop and assess your lifestyle for solutions to your own personal energy crisis.
How to Begin
The first step is to recognize the problem. Most people readily associate fatigue and energy deficit with the desire to be a couch potato. But Pamela explains that people aren't so used to linking mental confusion, short-term memory loss, irritability, lowered immunity, insomnia, mood swings, sweets cravings, even difficulty with losing weight and staying on an exercise plan, with a lack of energy.
"People have become accustomed to feeling bad," Pamela says. "They get so used to feeling tired that they look on fatigue as being normal. But the essential message of The Energy Edge is that while fatigue may be common in couples living in the twenty-first century, it is not normal. And it is not how God designed our bodies."
Pamela suggests that our bodies were created with "energy scripted into every cell." The question is, do our lifestyle choices allow a free flow of that energy? And how do overtaxed couples find the time or energy to make a change?
"One of the vicious downward cycles of health is that when you're tired or sick, the idea of changing your life is absolutely overwhelming," Pamela explains. "The worse you feel, the worse you take care of yourself. And the worse you take care of yourself, the worse you feel."
For that reason, Pamela's no-nonsense advice for breaking free from the fatigue cycle is both positive and practical. In the opening sections of her book, she details her "Top Ten Power Points" for a life filled with energy. The steps can be tackled one at a time, in any order. The important thing is to begin.
Meeting Your Physical Needs
"The truth is, we all have the power to shape and maintain our energy levels, more than we realize," Pamela says. "We must begin by righting the wrongs in our bodies and getting our bodies to work for us, not against us." Pamela's first five "Power Points" focus on physical well-being.
1. Breathe to recharge. When stress and tension build, Pamela advises that breathing deeply from the diaphragm ten or fifteen times, with careful attention to exhaling fully, oxygenates the blood and calms the nerves. "If you're surrounded by toddlers or stuck in a traffic jam, just stop and take ten deep, slow breaths," Pamela says. "It's the simplest thing you can do, but also the easiest energy release."
2. Drink water to energize. "If you do nothing else in your quest for energy but begin to drink water each day—and drink a lot of it—you will experience a phenomenal boost in your energy and sense of well-being," says Pamela. She admits that many of her clients don't believe it at first, but the number one factor for fatigue is dehydration. Water is a critical component for a host of functions essential to good health, from transporting nutrients throughout the body to preventing fluid retention to keeping the skin healthy and resilient. "Many of the symptoms of fatigue that we blame on too much stress and too little sleep are simply the result of thirst," Pamela says.
3. Eat for energy. Eating strategically, with a focus on timing, balance, and variety, is what Pamela calls the next best thing to a "youth potion." "Most Americans, particularly women, have been trained practically since birth to consider food and calories the enemy, and restrict them maniacally," Pamela says. But the truth is simple: "Food is just good-tasting units of energy."
Pamela recommends eating small meals or power snacks throughout the day, at least every three hours, to stabilize blood-sugar levels and fight out-of-control cravings. That means starting the day with breakfast, including carbohydrates and proteins at each mini-meal, choosing low-fat sources of protein, and including lots of brightly colored fruits and vegetables each day.
4. Sleep to recharge. "Physiologically, sleep is the repair shop of the body and brain, the process that most thoroughly restores our psychological and physiological vitality after the strain and exertion of life," Pamela says. For sweet sleep, she recommends maintaining as regular a daily slumber schedule as possible. If sleep is elusive, troubleshoot by checking medications, addressing hormone issues, abandoning late-day caffeine, declining high-fat or high-sugar snacks after dinner, and eliminating a nightcap or nicotine.
Regular exercise can also promote better sleep. And Pamela recommends that the bedroom not become an office, a place to pay bills, or a home theater. "Make your bed restful by using it only for sleeping and romance," she advises.
5. Exercise to release energy. According to Pamela, exercise is the fastest way to feel an energy boost. "Just a ten-minute walk brings an increase in energy and decreases tension and fatigue for as long as two hours," she writes in her book.
Most people know that exercise is good for them. So why don't they do it? "I believe the answer is simple," says Pamela. "It's the vicious cycle of exhaustion that many of us are stuck in. We know we need to exercise, but we are simply too tired to get it done."
For that reason, Pamela recommends a phased energy plan for many of her clients. They begin by eating well for three weeks. Then, after a thorough fitness physical, they add activity to their lives in whatever form they choose—walking, riding a bike, dancing, gardening, or playing catch with the kids.
A combination of aerobic exercise, strength and conditioning work outs, and stretching is the goal. Pamela recommends choosing activities that are fun as well as physical, to guard against boredom.
"Initiating a well-designed exercise plan will create a wave of positive changes in your life," Pamela says. "You can forge your own path, at your own pace, and in your own direction."
Improving Mental and Emotional Well-being
Lifestyle choices and environmental conditions greatly influence how strong and alert people feel at any given moment, Pamela says. Her last five "Power Points" focus on enhancing mental and emotional well-being.
1. Nourish your brain. Many complex factors contribute to mental well-being. On the physiological side of the equation, the balance of certain chemicals in the brain can drastically affect moods. Maintaining steady blood glucose levels, getting adequate amounts of important vitamins, and addressing hormone imbalances are important keys to enhancing mental clarity.
Pamela recommends regular physicals to detect vitamin B-12 deficiency, thyroid disease, elevated glucose levels, or depression. She advocates a healthy diet to stabilize blood sugar and provide a constant fuel supply for the brain, while cautioning against excessive alcohol consumption and smoking.
Other advice? Remain intellectually active. (Crossword puzzles and music lessons beat an hour zoned out in front of the tube!) Exercise to improve blood flow to the brain, and consistently cultivate a positive mental attitude.
2. Manage your moods. "The key to sealing up the energy leaks caused by bad moods is to learn techniques to short-circuit negative emotions and downward swings," Pamela says. She coaches clients to become conscious of precisely how they feel at different times of the day.
"Make notes about your state of mind after your daily phone call to Mom, your workout at the gym, before lunch, after a package of M&Ms," she advises. "The goal is to identify your mood rhythms."
The next step is matching activities with energy levels. Schedule potentially stressful work during peak upbeat hours. Save activities that don't require as much emotional energy for lower periods during the day.
Again, proper eating and exercise play a powerful role. Other mood-boosting strategies include making time for replenishing activities, sharing your thoughts with a trusted confidant or counselor, staying spiritually connected, spending time with positive people, and helping others.
3. Energize your domain. "There is little question that your environment affects your energy level—positively or negatively," Pamela says. To maximize the positive effects, start by eliminating clutter. Add warm colors—yellow, orange, or red—to a room by painting a wall, putting flowers on the desk at work, or wearing a bright-colored shirt. Clean up stale air with energizing scents. Set out a basket of lemons or oranges, brew a pot of peppermint tea, or hang a eucalyptus wreath. Add plants to the decor. Pull back the curtains to let in the sunshine, or open a window for some fresh air. In an office with fluorescent lighting, bring in a lamp with a warm-tinted bulb. Head off a stressed-out slump with upbeat or calming music.
Make a change. Rearrange the furniture, take a new route to school or the office, eat something new for breakfast. "Whatever your do, changing your daily domain and choices will propel you out of an energy sapping rut," Pamela says.
4. Take time-outs. This may sound impossible, but the alternative is a life-devouring pace that steals fulfillment from every day. "To really enjoy life spiritually, emotionally, relationally, and physically, we must have a way, and take the time, to recharge our physical batteries and renew our spirits," Pamela cautions. "Otherwise, we get depleted, sick, and tired."
She maintains that it is possible to find time-out in the midst of a hectic life. Begin by brutally trimming the calendar, crossing out unnecessary scheduled events. Start the day with a quiet time for reflection and end it the same way. At least once a week, make an hour-long date with yourself and plan to do nothing. On hectic days, remember that a strategically scheduled down-time can make you more productive.
Deliberately choose to find moments for relaxing and replenishing. "With determination and a little creativity, anyone can make the time for time-out," Pamela says.
5. Boost your immune system. The practical, common-sense principles of eating well, exercising, drinking plenty of water, and sleeping regularly are paramount here. Pamela's advice for taking breaks and managing moods is important as well, because it can minimize stress. "A number of studies have indicated that people who are under chronic stress are more likely to get sick than people whose lives are consistently less pressured," Pamela cautions.
A positive outlook and supportive friends can also be a plus. "Studies show that people with a solid network of friends and opportunities for giving of themselves are nearly four times less inclined to pick up colds and flus they are exposed to," explains Pamela. "It's theorized that the feelings of self-worth, responsibility, purpose, and meaning in life make people more motivated to take care of themselves."
The Final Analysis
So what do you and your spouse have to gain from these ten suggestions for living life on the "Energy Edge"? Pamela hopes that her advice can help couples on the brink of crisis to survive their energy crunch and learn to thrive in the midst of a super-hectic culture.
"There's so much of life that we can't control," Pamela says. "We can't control other people and their choices, or the situations that are dealt to us. But we can take control of our own choices. In fact, it is one thing that we have been called to—self-control."
Pamela believes that many couples feel trapped, caught in a cycle of chronic fatigue that tells them they are powerless to change their lives or to do things differently. These couples need simple strategies to begin a process of positive change, even if it starts with only one spouse. Ultimate ly, she believes that husbands and wives need hope.
"God designed us with a body that works," Pamela says. "We just need to cooperate with him. The reality is, God is not only the ultimate giver of energy, he is the ultimate giver of hope."
Renae Bottom is a MP regular contributor. She and her family live in Nebraska.
Is Fatigue in Control?
Am I always tired, even after a full night's rest?
Am I irritable at certain times of the day?
Do I have trouble thinking clearly and remembering things?
Have I gained weight or had trouble losing it?
Does my mind fog when I'm forced to make quick decisions?
Do I feel as though I've lost my sense of humor?
Am I picking up colds and flus more often?
Do I wake up in the middle of the night, unable to get back to restful sleep?
Do I have difficulty staying consistent with an exercise routine?
Do I crave sweets much of the time?
Do I struggle with depression?
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.