Is it just me or does it seem like everyone is totally and utterly exhausted these days?

There’s no doubt it’s worse at this time of year, when we’re all desperately trying to make it through all the pre-Christmas craziness to the holidays when hopefully we’ll get a break and catch up on some much-needed rest and relaxation.

But it’s not just a seasonal affliction. It’s a trend I’ve become increasingly aware of throughout the year, to the point where the standard answer to “how are you?” seems to have gone from “not bad” or “fine thanks” to “tired!” or “exhausted!”. And not just in the “I had a bad night’s sleep last night and could do with a little more shut-eye” way but in a “I’m so exhausted I can barely drag myself out of bed each morning, let alone get through all the things I want/ need/ am expected to do today”.

This was brought into sharp focus for me recently when I literally crashed after an exhausting few months. I rarely get sick but when I do, my body literally says “enough” and won’t function, forcing me to slow down for a few days and rest.

The crazy thing is, I knew it was coming – when I’ve pushed past the limits of work/ training/ home life/ social commitments and so on, the tell-tale signs of exhaustion set in: a sore throat, cracked lips, low energy, bags under my eyes. It’s different for everyone but most of us can see it coming. Yet still we push on – with this misguided notion that we have to be some kind of superwoman and god forbid if we sit down and take a few moments just to do, well, nothing.

So when the inevitable crash came, and I was consigned to my bed/ couch for two days, I still struggled to switch off and relax. I felt guilty doing nothing and my mind kept wandering to all the things that weren’t getting done while I was resting. Sound familiar?

It seems particularly bad at this time of year when a lot of us feel like we’re limping/ crawling to the “finish line” – the Christmas period and the promise of a couple of weeks off (if we’re lucky). Compounding our already exhausted state is the constant stream of social activities that this time of year brings with it – and usually more alcohol and crappy food, which doesn’t help our state of mind or body.

I’m generalising of course but it seems particularly relevant to women – and not just those with kids. When you have a baby you expect a certain level of exhaustion that comes with sleepless nights and a small human who is entirely dependent on you. But women without kids or those with older children are not immune to this by any means. I hear women talk constantly about all the things they’re trying to “fit in” and “juggle”.

Most of us know the feeling – are experiencing it now or have lived it at one time or another – when you feel like your life is going at warp-speed and you can’t possibly fit everything you need (or think you need) to do into 24 hours? Often the first casualty is sleep – we get by on fewer hours than is ideal which creates a vicious circle: we’re too tired to function efficiently and so everything takes longer and everything seems harder than it should.

Often the next thing to go is exercise and healthy eating. Because we’re so tired and busy, getting up in the morning to exercise – or fitting it in after a busy day at work/ home – seems like a momentous struggle. And as for eating healthily, forget it. Who feels like making a healthy salad or cooking dinner from scratch when they’re already exhausted? Tired and busy – talk about a lethal combo for our health.

Here’s the other thing you may not realise. Lack of sleep itself makes it harder for us to eat healthily and control out weight. We all know that feeling of being ravenous after a bad night’s sleep and craving foods high in sugar and empty kilojoules that will give us that quick burst of energy we’re craving (however short-lived). Well there’s a reason for that feeling. When we don’t get enough sleep one of the effects is that we produce more of a hormone called ghrelin which drives our hunger. And simultaneously, the hormone that tells us we’re full, leptin, is supressed when we’re tired. So it’s a double whammy.

So then comes another vicious cycle – we’re tired, we eat crap food, we get an initial sugar high then we crash, making us even more tired and reaching for that next biscuit/ soft drink/ chocolate bar.

There are other hormones at play here that can turn tiredness and stress into a very unhealthy combo and one that often leads to weight gain. When our bodies are in a constant state of low-level stress and anxiety we produce more cortisol. And raised cortisol levels have been shown to contribute to storing more fat, particularly around the tummy area. So even if you feel like you’re doing all the right things – eating well, exercising regularly – you could still be storing fat around your middle for the simple reason that your cortisol levels are raised because you’re tired and stressed.

There’s no easy solution, of course, or we’d all have it under control. We can’t just say sorry kids/ work/ partner etc, we need some time to recharge – do your best and we’ll see you in a few days. But we can learn to prioritise. As my husband likes to say to me when life starts to get too crazy, “something’s got to give”. For me, my health and my family are my priorities; everything else comes second. So if that means saying no to some social events so I have the energy to exercise or more time to spend with my family, then so be it, my friends will understand. Finding balance in our lives is an ongoing challenge. But our bodies usually have a way of telling us when that balance is out of whack – whether it’s a lack of energy, weight gain, bad skin and hair, illness or something else.

Hopefully we all get a chance over the holidays to recharge and reassess our priorities for 2013. Hope everyone has a happy and healthy New Year – I’m off to put my feet up for a while!