How to avoid being asleep on the job

So one in three of us visits a GP complaining of constant tiredness. Rob Sharp finds out what's wearing us out – and how we can regain our get-up-and-go

The accident happened in early March in Reading, but its circumstances could be repeated at any time, anywhere from Penzance to Purley. Pakistani national Shehzad Akbar, 33, made the national news after ploughing his taxi into a tree. He was nearing the end of a 14-hour night shift and had fallen asleep at the wheel. He died shortly afterwards.

Such tragic incidents should serve as a wake-up call to a nation sleepwalking its way to an early grave with heavy hearts and droopy lids. A study published earlier this month by the Sleep Council – a charity circumspect enough to promote the benefits of a good night's sleep – told of 36 per cent of Britons sleeping poorly most nights. The average amount of sleep that people get is 6.6 hours – well below the recommended eight hours. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the cost of stress and fatigue to the British economy is estimated to be £15bn.

There are few who've avoided mainlining stimulants ahead of an exam but sustained tiredness – in its most extreme forms – can truncate lifespans. According to British charity Action for ME, an estimated 240,000 Britons have been diagnosed with the most severe form of fatigue – chronic fatigue syndrome, or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). Its symptoms include debilitating fatigue, muscle pain, and mental fogginess. Lethargy caused by our lifestyles, on the other hand, can cause anxiety, depression and affect our ability to think clearly and react normally. Your average GP – who reports that one in three of their patients say they're tired all the time, and often don't have the time to treat it – recommends some digging. If there's no clear cause, there are some ways we can galvanise our lackadaisical frames into motion.

"First off if you're tired all the time it can be a mask for a variety of different problems," says Richard Vautrey, a GP in Leeds and deputy chair of the British Medical Association's GP committee. "It could be stress-related depression, in some cases physical problems; anaemia, thyroid problems, diabetes or low blood sugar. Generally with people who complain there is no one reason that accounts for it; it's often more stress-related or something going on their life.

"In general terms people should have a balanced diet, exercise on a regular basis which can help release endorphins from the system which gives people energy; limit alcohol, stop smoking. Looking after your weight can help, it's common sense things. Also get plenty of rest. Some people are surprised that they get tired when they have been working excessively and forget to look after themselves. It's important to do things that can help you relax and unwind."

The exercise recommendation might seem counter-intuitive, but medics like Vautrey say that it is often the best solution. Researchers at the University of Georgia published research in the February 2008 edition of the Journal of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics in which a controlled group that exercised recorded a 20 per cent increase in energy compared to another group that didn't. Woodson Merrell, director of integrative medicine at the Continuum Centre for Health and Healing in New York City – which combines Western medical practices with alternative therapies – has written The Source, Unlock Your Natural Energy, Revitalise Your Health and Change Your Life, published in Britain earlier this year. On the exercise front, he suggests the British standard of half an hour three times a week, with a preference for yoga. He advises on useful yoga positions – for their beneficial effect on stress ("staff" – sitting upright, legs outstretched; "cobra" – lie flat on your belly then push your arms out and bend your head back, though probably best to consult a qualified instructor first).

In fact, contrary to what western medicine might think, Merrell has some useful advice. His book contains some sound, clinically-proven words on how we can feel less tired as well as a discussion of the merits of Chinese medicine, acupuncture and meditation. "The book is examining how people can take charge of their health and revitalise their energy levels so they can achieve optimum wellness," he says. "Not everyone can do this, however. If you are a type one diabetic, you are probably never going to be in perfect health. But there are various areas – stress, diet, detox, exercise, rest and connectedness – which are important for the average person to consider."

He recommends that people take a stress log, work out the areas of their life where they can make a positive change and act accordingly. He also tells us to meditate – the health benefits of which within conventional medicine are somewhat unclear – during the morning, one of the most stressful times of day.

His thoughts on rest match those of British doctors, who also talk about the optimum eight hours a day. "Various studies suggest that when we're sleep-deprived the body overcompensates by producing the hormone cortisol [a stress-related hormone that increases blood sugar] which can make it more difficult to get to sleep in the evenings," he says. "If you don't sleep, you can also retain body fat, which in itself makes you sleepy and can weaken your immune system. It's also about the quality of sleep you get; if you wake up every hour throughout the night you can emerge in the morning feeling like you've been run over by a truck."

He recommends baths containing lavender, calming music, abstaining from alcohol, and has some interesting theories on how to stay sleeping if you feel like you're waking up. "If you're coming up into consciousness, and you are at that point where you are still thinking about something in a dream – latch on to the thing you're thinking about. Half the time you will return to sleep."

So whether we embrace modern methods, or the energy-obsessed mantras of the Tibetans and Chinese, many of whose techniques have been used for thousands of years, hopefully, the results will be the same. A more energetic approach to our day-to-day lives, and a wide-eyed view of the world approaching us – before it's too late.

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