Fighting back against midlife tiredness
BETWEEN 2011 and 2015 Christine Heffernan had three babies one after the other, oversaw the building of the family home, and broke her hand in a bad fall.
Life at the time, recalls the 40-something, was exhausting and nothing short of chaotic.
After each baby, she returned to work a four-day week as a business adviser with the Local Enterprise Office near her home in Clonakilty, Co Cork. “It was work, baby, work, baby,” she recalls.
Added to that was the fact that one of the babies (now aged six, four, and three) didn’t sleep for the best part of three years which, on top of the demands of her fulfilling but challenging job, added to an overwhelming sense of fatigue.
“It’s a very busy job, which entails planning, organising, and scheduling training programmes for small businesses and arranging events for everything from school programmes to business initiatives,” she says.
The constant juggle of home, children, and work was debilitating. “I was completely worn out. By 2015 when I broke my hand, I realised I had to do something.”
She didn’t just ‘do something’ — Heffernan, who doesn’t drink or smoke, essentially tweaked every aspect of her life, from exercise to diet to leisure, eventually, as of last January, reducing her atwork days from four to three.
To begin with, Heffernan, who had not exercised in five years, joined a circuits class, and later started to jog at the weekends. She changed her diet too. “I started cutting out wheat and treats,” she says.
“When I was having the babies I was snacking on bread and biscuits but I changed to eating a lot more fruit and vegetables and did all of my own cooking, and that has helped enormously with my fatigue. I felt the bread and potatoes were wiping me out.”
Last January, she switched from a four-day work week to three days. “It gives me more time with my children and I get a lot of work done in the three days at work. I feel better balanced as a result.”
Life is still very busy, and she still gets tired from all that juggling, but she manages her energy levels carefully, through diet, exercise, and her beloved Monday yoga class, which, she says, “energises and balances me for the week.
“I also make a point of sending myself positive messages during the day,” says the 41-year-old, who volunteers with Cork Simon, for which she is organising a fundraising event over Women’s Little Christmas.
Modern mums seem to feel wired to deliver on all fronts, driving themselves on ever-decreasing batteries — and with an ever-reducing number of sleeps to the stress-fest that is Christmas, the pressure is building on a daily basis.
It’s a particularly insistent problem for a large number of Irish mothers who are having first or second babies later in life, says Laura Erskine of Mummypages.ie.
“Women in Ireland are having their first or second child later in life than they previously would have had,” she says adding that sleepless nights, tears, and temper tantrums can have an added impact on an older mother.
On top of that, she points out, mums in their 40s are often part of the sandwich generation. Along with child-bearing and child-rearing, they can find themselves struggling to cope with the needs of ageing parents.
“This is where we see our mums struggling the most — trying to be all things to all people,” says Erskine, adding that the downward pressure on mothers from social media to replicate a sort of “ideal” family is another stress.
The kind of food you eat has a lot to do with the fatigue you experience, warns
dietitian Orla Walsh. She says caffeine and chocolate snacks may seem like an easy fix for stressed-out mums, but that sugar ‘high’ inevitably ends up in a debilitating sugar ‘low’.
“When energy levels dip, it’s natural to reach for something that will bring your energy levels back up again.”
Life can be awfully full, she agrees, and when you’re in your 40s with children and a demanding job, it’s much better to take a proactive approach to your personal energy store.
“Instead of reaching for sugar or caffeine to bring you back up, simply prevent dips in energy by ensuring you’re well hydrated,” she advises, adding that women should aim to consume a glass of water before every meal and a total of about two litres of fluid every day.
“Eat balanced meals with wholegrain carbohydrate, protein or dairy, and fruit or vegetables,” advises Orla, adding that this keeps your energy stable throughout the day.
GP and herbalist Dr Dilis Clare believes that feeling fatigued at 40 has more to do with digestion than we often realise. “About one third of people, particularly women, have digestive problems and these can cause fatigue,” she says, adding that in the early 40s in particular, fatigue is often about food, lifestyle, and the condition of the thyroid.
Dr Clare suggests incorporating seaweed flakes and turmeric in the diet. Stews, casseroles, and soups are a good place to start.
“As you move into your late 40s, fenugreek is something you can get as a powder or a seed and it’s very good for blood sugar management,” she says.
“This is good at any time but particularly the late 40s when you may be entering menopause,” advises Dr Clare, who recommends rhodiola, a herb from northern Europe, and Siberian ginseng for stress.
Herbalist Katie Pande believes that a stressful lifestyle is a primary cause of fatigue in the early 40s — so first off, have a look at your average day and see what you can change, she advises.
However, as a woman progresses through the peri-menopause and menopause with the subsequent hormone disruption, night sweats, heavy periods, and the like, it’s a good idea to source herbs called adaptogens, says Pande. These herbs help modify the production of stress hormones in the body by supporting the adrenal gland. Pande recommends shatavari and ashwagandha.
Lack of sleep has a serious impact on fatigue levels. Our habit of taking Netflix to bed or succumbing to the temptation to scroll through the latest news story on a handheld device will make it even harder to drift off. New Australian research into sleep has found women suffer almost twice as much from negative effects of sleep disorders than men — feeling more daytime sleepiness (plus memory problems and lack of concentration) as a result.
A top recommendation from sleep expert Deirdre McSwiney is to avoid any tech screen, bar the TV, for two hours before bed.
McSwiney, who worked at the renowned Mater Private Sleep Clinic for 20 years before setting up a cognitive behavioural therapy service for insomnia sufferers, believes one of the big complaints from women in their 40s is tiredness.
Lack of sleep is a contributor to fatigue for over-stressed women trying to juggle too much — and, says McSwiney, another way to good sleep hygiene is learning how to “come down” from a stressful day.
“It’s important to take time out in the early part of the evening to begin to wind down, to think about how your day has gone and dump it.”
Next, attend to your to-do list: Kids’ schoolbags, lunches, and so on. And don’t eat big meals late, she says. This can affect your digestive system and disrupt a night’s sleep. Go to bed when you know it’s time — and, as stated previously, combat the effect of ‘blue light’ from handheld devices by avoiding them altogether for two hours before bed.
WORK-LIFE BALANCE: Christine Heffernan, business adviser for the Local Enterprise Office, now works three days a week.