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Life Hacks for MS: How to Bust the Afternoon Energy Slump

It’s 2:45 pm as I write this and I’ve just eaten a cookie.

I confess, that’s not the best way to conquer the afternoon circadian dip, even if it’s “just” oatmeal with craisins!

Truth be told, we can practice healthier ways to beat back that afternoon fatigue, MS or not. Here are five tricks that work for me (which aren’t cookies).

First: What’s a circadian dip?

You’ve probably heard of circadian rhythms. Well, these internal rhythms aren’t static, they flow with peaks and valleys like energy itself.

For instance, circadian rhythms teem with high energy the moment we awaken, biologically resurrected after a night’s sleep. At this time:

  • The body’s core temperature rises
  • Alertness hormones such as cortisol flood the bloodstream
  • The body stops releasing melatonin (the “sleep hormone”)
  • Certain physical processes that went into “sleep” mode themselves (such as digestion) “clock in” for another day of work

Our sleep drive

The longer we stay awake during the day, the more we bank points toward better sleep at night by contributing to our “sleep drive.”

Like the hunger drive, which builds based on the absence of food, our sleep drive builds based on the absence of sleep.

The longer we stay awake, the stronger our sleep drive becomes until we finally settle in at night. Then, our circadian system:

  • Drops the core body temperature to prepare for sleep
  • Releases melatonin slowly into the bloodstream
  • Reduces levels of cortisol and other “alertness” hormones
  • Retires certain physical processes (such as digestion) to get some much-needed rest and repair

So why do we feel sleepy in the middle of the day?

The circadian dip describes a normal transition in rhythms between wakefulness and sleepiness, providing our brains and bodies with an opportunity to rest.

We experience not one, but two of these dips every 24-hour period: between 2 and 4 AM (when we should be asleep) and between 1 and 3 PM (right after lunch).1 If you’re a napper, go ahead and catch a few ZZZ!

Unfortunately, many of us aren’t able to take naps at this time. Unfortunately, our solutions for fighting this mini “sleep drive” only make it harder to stay alert (such as oatmeal cookies at 2:45 PM).

The circadian dip and MS

These dips affect all of us, regardless of health status. But what about afternoon fatigue in people with MS?

It’s no secret that people with MS face fluctuations in energy levels throughout the day that are linked to their illness. Causes for MS fatigue include:

  • Muscle spasms, which burn a lot of energy
  • The brain working overtime to process ordinary sensory input
  • Overheating and/or high humidity

How can we know if our fatigue is related to MS versus normal circadian dipping?

Honestly, it’s hard to differentiate daytime fatigue from sleepiness. The fact is, they’re both very different things.

Daytime fatigue

Daytime fatigue generally doesn’t lead to a compelling need to sleep. It’s something more akin to exhaustion or lack of physical energy. Think of it this way: fatigue describes a noticeable absence of energy (mental, physical, or emotional).

Daytime sleepiness

Daytime sleepiness generally pushes you to want to sleep. Yawning, tired eyes, and a heavy head compel you to seek out a comfortable spot for some shuteye, which comes quickly. After all, sleepiness is the opposite of wakefulness.

Getting back to that circadian dip...it’s likely impossible to know if your afternoon slump is caused by MS or normal rhythms. What’s worse, we can confuse low energy for drowsiness caused by poor sleep the night before (another potential side effect of life with MS).

So, maybe it’s more useful to find ways to lessen the impact of the afternoon slump.

5 ways to curb the afternoon slump

  1. Get moving. Any kind of movement (an actual work out, stretching, or a stroll) generates hormones that prompt wakefulness. If you’ve been sitting, do some chores or run an errand. If you’re not mobile, chair yoga or relocating to a different location for different scenery can boost alertness.
  2. Go outside for a vitamin D booster. Exposure to bright midday sun prompts your body to make its own vitamin D. People with MS need ample amounts.
  3. Listen to energizing music. They don’t listen to lullabies at the gym for a reason!
  4. Chew gum. This stimulates facial muscles, improves salivation (part of a healthy digestive process), and promotes circulation.
  5. Drink water. Dehydration can cause daytime fatigue. It’s especially problematic if you drink several cups of coffee but don’t chase them with water.

Now that I’m done writing this article, I’m going to retrieve my mail, which will take me outside, into sun and fresh air, and far away from any more oatmeal cookies.

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