One of the most common issues I hear from oncology patients is that they have no energy. I recall talking with one very underweight woman about her diet. I asked her what her goals were about her diet and weight. She wasn't really all that concerned about her weight, she just wanted to have more energy and be able to do more around the house and with her family.
Certainly cancer patients have many reasons to feel fatigued: cancer itself, treatment effects, stress, anxiety, anemia, the physical demands of getting treatments, and so on. Symptoms should always be discussed with the physician and healthcare team to determine if there are any reversible causes of fatigue.
But there are also natural ways to increase energy that we should be encouraging to our patients, and frankly ourselves too! We often reach for a cup of coffee, can of soda, energy drink, or a candy bar when we feel we need a boost. Are these really giving us what we need to get through the day? The sugar or caffeine may provide a burst of energy, but that is often followed by a letdown where you are just as tired (or even more so) as before. Also, caffeine is a stimulant that can cause nervousness, irritability, and insomnia in some people, not to mention the diuretic effect it has.
Instead of going for that soft drink or coffee for a pick-me-up, try some of these tips. Ask your patients if they are doing these things too.
Choose healthy energy and nutrient-dense snacks. Combining a piece of fruit or whole grains with a protein will help provide lasting energy. The carbohydrates in fruit and whole grains provides an immediate energy boost while the protein will help sustain that feeling. Some ideas:
- Yogurt and berries.
- Cottage cheese and canned peaches (a lot of cancer patients I've worked with tolerate this well).
- A banana with a tablespoon of peanut butter or handful of walnuts.
- A smoothie made with milk or yogurt, frozen fruit, and a little honey for sweetness.
- A slice of whole grain bread or a few whole grain crackers with one or two tablespoons of nut butter (if you've never had it, try almond butter).
Make sure you are getting enough water. Not taking in enough fluid can lead to fatigue and headaches. By the time most people feel thirsty they are already dehydrated. Fluid needs vary by individual, but by and large most people don't take in enough. Try keeping a water bottle close by and keep up with how much you're drinking. Also, water-rich foods can help boost intake and are usually pretty healthy. Include cucumbers, celery, lettuce, watermelon, and berries to help stay hydrated.
Choose high fiber foods. High sugar foods give us an energy rush quickly followed by a crash. High fiber foods, though, can help stabilize blood glucose levels, which will keep energy levels constant. Foods high in fiber include 100 percent whole wheat bread, whole grain cereals, chick peas, black beans, broccoli, carrots, and berries. Be sure to increase water intake when increasing fiber though, otherwise some gastrointestinal symptoms may arise!
Of course, getting a good night's sleep is essential for recharging energy levels, as well as moderate intensity exercise most days of the week, if possible. Yoga, in particular, has been linked to improvement in energy. A recent study found that breast cancer survivors who completed a 12-week program of yoga had significantly less fatigue compared to controls, as well as increased feeling of vigor1. Sun salutations pose, anyone?
- Bower JE, Garet D, Sternlieb B, Ganz PA, Irwin MR, Olmstead R, Greendale G. Yoga for persistent fatigue in breast cancer survivors: A randomized controlled trial. Cancer. 2012 Aug 1;118(15):3766-3775.