Whether you’re burning the candle at both ends in your 20s or combining a hectic work schedule with raising a family in your 40s, a nutritional therapist explains potential energy traps that can lurk as you move through the decades, and how to eat for better energy levels
Have you lost your va va voom? Do you feel tired all the time? In my nutrition clinic, I constantly hear people claim: “it must be my age” as the reason for their lack of energy. It’s such a common complaint that I’ve even recently published a book on the subject ( Va Va Voom: the 10 Day Energy Diet ). ‘Tired all the time’ is even an acronym nowadays.
I’m a firm believer that fatigue is for the most part nothing to do with your biological age, but it can be everything to do with your life stage. The social, work and family environment can vary dramatically for women with each decade of life which can have a huge impact on your energy, motivation and performance. Simple changes to your diet and lifestyle can make a world of difference to how you feel at any age. Here’s my advice to help you cruise through each decade with plenty of energy.
20s: Burning the candle at both ends
This is the decade where you’ll most likely be packing in a busy social life at the same time as studying or working. At this age you may feel invincible, as you head off to work feeling as fresh as a daisy after an all-nighter, but beware, as it’s very common for women in their 20s to skip breakfast and to become over-reliant on a cycle of sugar, caffeine and alcohol to get through the day and night.
Too much of any of these will trigger the release of the hormone insulin, which is programmed to reduce excess sugar and stimulants in the blood, leading to a blood sugar crash and an energy slump. This can make you feel tired, irritable, shaky and headachey. Low blood sugar also increases levels of stress hormones which generate powerful cravings for sugary foods to redress the balance. This constant hormonal battle to keep things on the straight and narrow can be exhausting.
If you tend to crave sugar and regularly feel like nodding off at your desk, then it’s probably time to take control of your blood sugar.
Three ways to regulate your blood sugar
Tuck into a protein-rich breakfast, such as an eggs, cereal or porridge with a tablespoon of seeds or sugar-free peanut butter on wholemeal toast.
Swap white starch for brown starch, such as brown rice, wholemeal bread, wholegrain pasta.
Avoid long gaps between meals- aim to eat a meal or small snack roughly every four hours to keep energy levels stable.
30s: Professional high flyer
For many of us, our 30s is the decade when our career starts to take centre stage and our life can become more stressful. It’s usually also the time where a woman will start to think seriously about having children. That’s a powerful combination of conflicting pressures which can send you into a bit of a tailspin.
High levels of stress combined with regular alcohol consumption in particular will deplete levels of B vitamins in the body. This is bad news for your energy levels because the B vitamins play a crucial part in the energy production process and are important not just for physical energy but also mental concentration, focus and motivation. Vitamins B1, B2 and B3 act as mini spark plugs to fire up energy in our body’s cells and vitamins B6, B9 (folate) and B12 are involved in transporting energy-enhancing oxygen around the body while also supporting the absorption of iron.
If you’re feeling tired, irritable, anxious, forgetful and experiencing headaches or ringing in the ears, it may be due to a deficiency in B vitamins , although if you’re worried about your symptoms it’s always a good idea to book an appointment with your GP.
Three ways to boost your B vitamins
Aim to eat at least five portions of different vegetables every day.
Try steaming instead of boiling your vegetables- B vitamins are water soluble and up to 40% can be lost in water when boiled.
Try to have three consecutive alcohol-free days each week, as this will enhance your absorption of B vitamins.
40s: Time ninja
Many women in their 40s have learned to become accomplished jugglers, as they fulfil work commitments while bringing up a young family. This is the period where you’re most likely to feel as if you’re running permanently on empty and it’s also the decade where many women come to my nutrition clinic with some form of thyroid dysfunction. The thyroid gland governs our metabolism and a sluggish thyroid will leave you feeling very tired, especially in the morning, where it’s common to wake feeling unrefreshed even after a long sleep.
Although there are a number of different possible reasons for a thyroid dysfunction, chronic stress is a very common factor. So it’s important in your 40’s to make sure you’re still following the advice from the previous decades – balancing your blood sugar will help you avoid producing excess stress hormones (because you probably really don’t need any more!) and keeping your B vitamins nicely topped up is important for general energy production, as well as being essential for optimal thyroid function.
If there’s one nutrient that could make a big difference to the 40-something woman, it’s magnesium . Magnesium is the multi-tasker of the mineral family and, like you, is programmed to do a range of vital jobs. A natural stress-buster, magnesium helps to calm the nervous system, activate our natural shock absorbers so that we’re better equipped to handle pressure and it also helps to relieve muscle tension.
If you feel tired a lot of the time yet struggle to switch off, it could be time to top up your magnesium levels.
Three ways to boost your magnesium
Have two large handfuls of leafy green vegetables every day.
Opt for magnesium-rich wholegrain foods such as brown rice or wholegrain bread.
Have an Epsom salt (magnesium sulphate) bath- two or three handfuls of salts in the bath will allow magnesium to absorb through the skin , calming you down after a stressful day and setting you up for a good night’s sleep
50s- Hormonal roller coasters
One of the big surprises of reaching your 50s is that there’s far more to the menopause than you may initially have imagined: it’s not just about hot flushes ! The perimenopausal phase can start from the mid-40s onwards with a range of different and unexpected symptoms, but it’s usually at its height from the age of 50. As hormone levels fluctuate a number of changes will occur that can have a significant impact on your energy levels.
Restless, broken sleep is a very typical symptom of the menopause which will naturally leave you feeling more tired. It’s also very common to generally run out of steam more quickly and to feel a lack of mental energy, which can affect concentration, focus and memory and often leaves you with a sense of residual anxiety. Some women experience much longer and heavier periods as well, which may result in an iron deficiency .
Your 50s is also typically the decade where you’re caught between supporting a growing family and caring for elderly relatives, as well as managing your professional life, so there’s an awful lot going on and you’re probably busier than ever. This means that all of the advice given to the previous decades will be extremely relevant to you, but a hormone-balancing approach could also help to support your energy levels by reducing the impact of the menopause.
Three ways to balance hormone levels
Aim to eat oily fish such as salmon, sardines or mackerel at least three times a week as these contain plenty of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats which help to balance hormones and keep the brain healthy.
Add a tablespoon of ground flaxseed to your morning cereal or porridge. It’s full of plant compounds called lignans which some studies suggest can help to relieve menopausal symptoms.
Eat plenty of vegetables, pulses and wholegrains- these fibre-rich foods will bind to and eliminate old hormones, so that they don’t get reabsorbed into the bloodstream.
Jackie Lynch is a Registered Nutritional Therapist and author of Va Va Voom: the 10-Day Energy Diet (Headline, £14.99).
Visit her website at www.well-well-well.co.uk or follow her on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram via @WellWellWellUK.