kris ulland

Your Nutrition Partner

If you are frequently exhausted during the day, you may suspect a sleep disorder. But, there may be other reasons for your daytime tiredness.

“Fatigue and sleepiness are two different things,” explains clinical psychologist Jennifer Martin, PhD, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Sleepiness means you are not getting enough good quality sleep, and during the day you can’t keep your eyes open. Fatigue is not having a lot of energy. You can feel that from having chronic pain, stress, or exercising too much.”

These non-sleep related conditions may be the cause of your fatigue.

Anemia

Also known as having a low red blood cell count, anemia can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, and headaches. In addition to having lower than normal amounts of red blood cells, the cells may not have enough hemoglobin, an iron-rich protein that helps circulate oxygen around the body. Hemoglobin carries oxygen from your lungs to all parts of the body. Myoglobin, another protein made by iron, brings oxygen to your muscles.

Anemia can be mild to severe, but both should be treated. A blood test can reveal if you are anemic. Common causes are deficiencies in iron, folate or vitamin B12. Foods rich in these nutrients can help the problem.

Two types of iron are found in food: heme (animal-derived) and non-heme (plant-derived).  Although it can be taken as a supplement, enough iron is available in our dietary sources. Vegans can find non-heme iron in dried beans and legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, and wholegrain cereals and breads. 
Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is a water-soluble vitamin that has many important functions in your body. It supports healthy cell division and promotes proper fetal growth and development to reduce the risk of birth defects. Vitamin B9 is found naturally in many foods, as well as in the form of folic acid in fortified foods. It’s recommended that healthy adults get at least 400 mcg of folate per day to prevent a deficiency. There’s no upper limit for our intakes of folate found in foods like leafy greens, beans, peas and lentils. For adults, there is a daily upper limit of 1000 micrograms for the amount of folic acid obtained from fortified foods and supplementation. (This also applies during pregnancy unless you’re receiving medical advice about high dose supplementation. High dose supplementation may be needed for those with a family history of birth defects or who have a high body mass index, have diabetes or take anti-epilepsy medication.)  
Keep an eye on your vitamin B12 levels if you eat a plant-based diet. Many still associate vitamin B12 as an animal-only derived nutrient, however this is not the case. Achieving your Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of vitamin B12 is easy with the support of fortified foods and vegan supplements.

  • Nutritional Yeast
  • Fortified Plant Milk (soy, almond, coconut, rice)
  • Tempeh
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Algae/seaweed
  • Mushrooms

The Foods You Choose

Not eating enough, and eating the wrong foods (highly processed and sugary foods) won’t provide the nutritional fuel you need to power through the day, which can lead to feeling tired. Combining protein with complex carbohydrate will help you stave off hunger, and help keep your body and brain energized. Avoid foods that make you tired after eating them, especially, if they keep you up at night as your body works at digesting them.

Underactive Thyroid

The thyroid gland makes a hormone that affects metabolism and is involved with how the body converts energy from food. Hypothyroidism is the medical term for an underactive thyroid. When food metabolizes too slowly, the result can be fatigue.

The disease is more common among people over 60, and affects more women than men. To diagnose hypothyroidism, a physician will take a full medical history and perform blood tests to check thyroid function and hormone levels.

Supplements containing biotin, common in hair and nail preparations, can interfere with the measurement of thyroid hormone. Biotin does not affect thyroid hormone levels, but supplements should be stopped for at least a week before measuring your thyroid function so that your thyroid status is accurately reflected.

If you have hypothyroidism, take thyroid hormone replacement medication as directed by your doctor, generally with an empty stomach. It’s also important to note that too much dietary fiber can impair the absorption of thyroid hormone replacement medication. Certain foods, supplements and medications can have the same effect.

Avoid taking your thyroid hormone at the same time as:

  • Walnuts
  • Soybean flour
  • Cottonseed meal
  • Iron supplements or multivitamins containing iron
  • Calcium supplements
  • Antacids that contain aluminum, magnesium or calcium
  • Some ulcer medications, such as sucralfate (Carafate)
  • Some cholesterol-lowering drugs, such as those containing cholestyramine (Prevalite) and colestipol (Colestid)

Foods alone won’t cure hypothyroidism. However, a combination of the right nutrients and medication can help restore thyroid function and minimize your symptoms.

Several nutrients are important for optimal thyroid health.

Iodine is an essential mineral that is needed to make thyroid hormones. Thus, people with iodine deficiency might be at risk of hypothyroidism. If you have an iodine deficiency, consider adding seaweed to your diet.

Selenium helps “activate” thyroid hormones so they can be used by the body. Just 4 Brazil nuts a day is all you need to keep your selenium levels healthy.

Like selenium, zinc helps the body “activate” thyroid hormones. Vegan and sources of zinc include wheat germ, fortified cereals, beans and legumes, seeds, nuts, oatmeal, tofu, and spinach.

Depression

Depression can have physical, not just emotional symptoms. Loss of appetite, headaches, and fatigue are all common. Being depressed drains energy. Often the medication prescribed for depression will have the side effect of fatigue. Try adding dark chocolate, turmeric (to a smoothie and soups), vitamin D-rich foods like mushrooms, fiber-rich foods like broccoli, and fermented foods like kimchi to help lift the fog of depression.

Urinary Tract Infections

UTIs are among the most common infections. Women are more likely to get them, but men do too, especially as they get older. Burning and itching are the most common symptoms, but older adults are more likely to feel tired, shaky, weak, and have muscle aches. Foods that help foster a healthy urinary tract are cranberries, blueberries, oranges, dark chocolate, unsweetened vegan probiotic yogurt, tomatoes, broccoli and spinach. Smart drink choices are decaf coffee; cranberry, blueberry, or pomegranate juices; and black and green tea. Of course, plenty of water is also essential when fighting off a UTI.

Dehydration

Not getting enough fluids can lead to fatigue. Most people need 8 eight-ounce glasses of water a day but if you sweat a lot, you will need more. Drink water before you exercise.

Fig

Figs have been associated with health and prosperity since ancient times. They’re symbolically linked to Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility, and were offered to the god Bacchus in ancient Rome. Figs are technically a collection of inverted flowers that, if left alone, would bloom from the inside out. They grow commonly in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, locations that are hot, sunny, and dry for a large portion of the year.
One small fresh fig contains:

  • Calories: 30
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Fat: 0 grams
  • Carbs: 8 grams
  • Fiber: 1 gram
  • Copper: 3% of the Daily Value (DV)
  • Magnesium: 2% of the DV
  • Potassium: 2% of the DV
  • Riboflavin: 2% of the DV
  • Thiamine: 2% of the DV
  • Vitamin B6: 3% of the DV
  • Vitamin K: 2% of the DV

Dried figs are high in sugar and have more calories, as the sugar becomes concentrated when the fruits are dried.

Figs are particularly rich in copper and vitamin B6. Copper is a vital mineral that’s involved in several bodily processes, including metabolism and energy production, as well as the formation of blood cells, connective tissues, and neurotransmitters. Vitamin B6 helps your body break down dietary protein and create new proteins. It also plays an important role in brain health.

Figs are a potassium-rich food and can help correct high blood pressure. The high levels of fiber in figs can help to flush excess sodium from the system. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, can lead to complications like heart disease and stroke. One factor that leads to high blood pressure is a potassium imbalance caused by eating too much sodium and not enough potassium.One study from 1998 in 10 people with type 1 diabetes found that having fig leaf tea with breakfast may have decreased their insulin needs. In the month they received fig leaf tea, their insulin doses decreased by about 12%.Drinks containing high doses of fig fruit extract had a lower glycemic index (GI) than beverages with no fig fruit extract, meaning these drinks would have a more favorable effect on blood sugar levels.

Figs have been used as a home remedy or an alternative treatment for digestive problems like constipation.  They contain fiber, which may help promote digestive health by softening and adding bulk to stools, decreasing constipation, and serving as a prebiotic, a food source for the healthy bacteria populating your gut.

In animal studies, fig fruit extract or paste helped speed the movement of food through the digestive tract, reducing constipation and improving the symptoms of digestive disorders like ulcerative colitis.

A study in 150 people with irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C) found that those who consumed about 4 dried figs (45 grams) twice daily experienced a significant reduction in symptoms, including pain, bloating, and constipation, compared with a control group.

There have been promising test-tube studies conducted on the effects of fig leaves on cancer cells. Fig leaves and natural latex from fig plants have been shown to exhibit anti-tumor activity against human colon cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, and liver cancer cells.

Because figs are also fairly rich in vitamin K, which can interfere with blood thinning medications and cause them to be less effective, if you’re on a blood thinner, you should keep your intake of figs and other vitamin-K-rich foods consistent from day to day to decrease your risk of complications.

Some people may be allergic to figs. If you have an allergy to birch pollen, you may be more likely to have a fig allergy as well. Fig trees also contain natural latex, which some people may be allergic to.

How to Buy

The shelf life of fresh figs is brief. They must be picked ripe from the trees as they do not ripen well once picked. A very firm fig is not ripe and will not properly ripen further. The prime harvesting season for fresh figs is mid-June to mid-October. If you see them in a market, buy them only if you plan to use them quickly. Fresh figs will spoil within seven to ten days of harvesting. In most cases, this means you have about three days at most to use them at home.

Select figs that are clean and dry, with smooth, unbroken skin. The fruit should be soft and yielding to the touch, but not mushy. Smell the fruit. If the fig smells slightly sour, it has already begun to ferment. When figs get beyond their prime, they begin to collapse inward and lose their round shape.

How to Store

It’s important to keep fresh figs cold to slow deterioration. Use them immediately or store in the coldest part of your refrigerator for up to two days. Fresh figs can be frozen whole, sliced, or peeled in a sealed container for ten to twelve months.

Since fresh figs are so delicate, canned or dried figs are an alternative. They are easy to find in most supermarkets and are relatively inexpensive. Canned figs will be good for a year in your pantry. Opened canned fig leftovers can be stored in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to a week. Dried figs can be stored in the original sealed package at room temperature for a month. For longer storage, keep them in the refrigerator where they can be stored for six months to a year. Opened dried figs should be transferred to a sealable silicone bag and stored in the refrigerator.

How to Cook

There are a number of ways to add figs to your diet:

  • Fresh. Fresh figs are low in calories and make for a great snack, and they’re an excellent addition to salads or desserts. You can also make fig jam or preserves with fresh figs.
  • Fig leaves. Although they may be difficult to find outside of specialty grocers, fig leaves are nutritious and can be used in a variety of ways. They’re often used the same way grape leaves are, as a wrap for dishes containing rice or other fillings.
  • Fig leaf tea. Fig leaf tea is made from dried fig leaves. You can make it yourself or purchase pre-made fig leaf teas online or in specialty stores.

Cut figs up small and mix them into dough the way you might mix in raisins. Prepared like this, figs go great in breads, cookies, and muffins.

Fig bars can be made by cooking chopped figs over medium heat until they are soft and moist. Then, they can be pressed into a pan with other ingredients.

Another option is to cut your figs lengthwise, season with maple syrup and cinnamon, and roast them in the oven for 40 minutes for a sweet dessert or side dish.

Sautéed Figs with Cinnamon and Almond

Sharon Palmer/ The Plant-Powdered Dietitian - Photo credit to Sharon Palmer

6 Servings

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds fresh figs (about 24 small figs)
  • 1 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/3 cup almonds, slivered
  • ¼ cup sweet white wine (i.e. reisling or dessert wine)

Instructions

  1. Wash and trim figs; slice in half.
  2. Heat olive oil in a skillet. Add cinnamon and cardamom.
  3. Sauté figs in olive oil for about 6-7 minutes until they begin to get tender.
  4. Add almonds and white wine, sautéing for an additional 2-3 minutes, until thickened and bubbly.
  5. Serve warm.
  6. Makes 6 servings, 1/2-cup per serving.

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