Feeling grotty and run-down right now? You’re not the only one

Written by Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

It’s not just you who feels unwell; here, a doctor explains why everyone is feeling under the weather at the moment…

“I’m not feeling 100% today” has recently become something of a catchphrase at Stylist HQ during lockdown 3.0.

Every morning, my teammates and I log onto Zoom for our first meeting of the day, and we kick things off by asking each other if we’re all OK.

Thus begins a very fun game, in which a group of naturally self-deprecating Brits crack a few jokes about the fact that, while we’re absolutely well enough to be working, we’re still feeling… well, a bit off

It’s a difficult one to sum up, really. Personally, when I say I’m feeling grotty, it covers a wide range of ailments. Maybe I’m overtired, or my head is aching like mad, or I’m feeling ultra queasy (but not actually being sick), or I just feel utterly drained of all energy, and really want to lie down and do nothing for a wee while.

Which is weird, isn’t it? Because, let’s face it, life in lockdown has provided me with literally every possible opportunity to do exactly that.

“You’d think that, after spending a year at home with the opportunity to lie in every day until 8am and no late nights out impacting my bedtimes, that I would be a picture of health and wellness,” agrees my usually effervescent colleague Megan Murray.

“Spoiler alert: I ain’t. While I’m not actually ill, I feel I’m constantly battling with myself to become this well-rested, healthy-feeling person that exists in my imagination, when in reality I feel more exhausted than I ever have.”

Lauren Geall feels exactly the same, adding: “I don’t know whether it’s because we’re now three weeks into lockdown, the weather is miserable, the evenings are dark or all of those things combined, but lately I feel like a bit of a zombie.

“It’s hard to explain – while I’m not ill (thank god), my mental and physical health just isn’t 100%. I’m tired, I’ve got brain fog and I keep getting headaches, and although a good night’s sleep makes me feel better, I always seem to end up feeling run-down again by the end of the day.”

And another friend, who prefers to remain anonymous, says: “My body always reacts strongly to the emotions I’m feeling. I break out in cold sores when I’m run-down, I get headaches when I stay indoors or find myself overthinking things (which happens a lot), and I just find myself utterly fatigued when things get tough.”

Noting that she has been sticking to a good routine in lockdown, she continues: “I’m cold, I’m bored, I’m sometimes lonely, I’m overthinking every little thing and I’m trying to work just as hard as I did in pre-pandemic times. I feel sluggish and droopy, even though I’m putting so much effort into getting out for walks.

“I might feel like ‘I’m fine’ generally, but my body is telling me that I’m not: I’ve already had one hell of a cold sore and a hellish migraine this month.”

So, what’s the deal? Keen to get to the bottom of it all, I reached out to Treated.com’s clinical lead, Dr Daniel Atkinson. 

Here’s what I learned.

Why do so many of us feel unwell and run-down at the moment?

“The winter months are notorious for catching people out with a bug or a virus,” explains Dr Atkinson. “And feeling run-down at this time of year can be quite normal. But our feelings are possibly being exacerbated by the current global pandemic.

“We’re constantly being reminded to look out for the common symptoms of coronavirus and therefore we may be paying that bit more attention to any signs of illness.”

Does that mean Covid-induced anxiety is causing us to feel more unwell than usual?

“Stress and anxiety can have a huge impact on our health and general wellbeing,” says Dr Atkinson. “And the coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly caused extra stress for everyone, on top of the normal stresses and strains that life can throw at us. The uncertainty we all feel about what may or may not happen in the next few weeks takes its toll on everyone, and being unable to make firm plans for the months ahead can make us feel extremely tired.

“The body’s usual stress response can help us deal with difficult situations until the perceived ‘threat’ has passed. However, if we feel as though we are under constant threat then the body may release too much of the stress hormone cortisol, which can go on to disrupt various normal bodily processes, including the immune system.

“If our immune defences are compromised then we could be more likely to pick up a cold or generally feel unwell.”

Should we be taking time off to recover, or should we be working through it?

“If you are unable to carry out your regular daily tasks then you should consider taking some time out to rest and recover,” urges Dr Atkinson.

“With lots of people now working from home, it can be all too easy to try and push on with the working day when doing so could delay your recovery.”

What can we do to boost our health at this time?

“Try to get outside each day, and make a point of speaking to friends and family on a frequent basis,” advises Dr Atkinson. “Don’t cut yourself off from your support network as keeping good mental health is just as important as our physical health.”

He adds: “Keeping active and making sure that exercise is part of your schedule can help to clear your mind and help reduce stress levels. And keeping stress levels down can help to keep your immune system functioning as it should.”

Should we be sleeping more than usual in lockdown?

“The cold and dark winter months can make us want to hunker down and hibernate,” says Dr Atkinson.

“If you feel run-down then it’s understandable that you may want to head to bed earlier or allow yourself a longer lie in. However, in general keeping to a regular routine may help you in the long run.

“While there’s currently not much you can do, particularly in the evenings, try making the most of some cosy nights in. Tackle a jigsaw, maybe, or cook something new in the kitchen.”

Should we be eating differently to get all the nutrients we’d usually get from spending time outdoors?

“Eating food that we enjoy is one of life’s great pleasures,” says Dr Atkinson, effortlessly becoming one of my favourite doctors of all time ever.

“Of course, it is still important to make sure that we are eating a wide variety of foods and getting nutrients to help support our immune system. Living in the UK at this time of year it is difficult for our bodies to naturally produce enough vitamin D, as it is usually generated when our skin is exposed to sunlight.

“However, it is also difficult to obtain sufficient vitamin D levels from food as it tends to only be available in small amounts. This is where vitamin supplements can play an important role.

So does that mean we should be taking vitamin D supplements?

“NICE guidelines actually advise that all adults living in the UK should take a daily vitamin D supplement of 10 mcg (1000iu) throughout the year, in a bid to prevent any deficiencies from developing,” says Dr Atkinson.

“Depending on any underlying health concerns, your GP may advise an alternative dose. If you are worried about a vitamin D deficiency, you should speak to your doctor.”

What should we pay attention to when we’re feeling unwell?

Dr Atkinson says that we need to keep an eye on the following five things:

  1. How are you sleeping? Are you getting enough sleep? Try and stick to a routine and see if this helps to improve your overall feeling.
  2. Have you noticed any changes in your usual bowel habits?
  3. Has your weight changed all of a sudden? If you’ve gained weight, it could be a sign that you’re eating more to offset stress or tiredness, or that you aren’t getting your normal levels of physical activity due to a packed work day. If you’ve lost quite a bit of weight without trying, it could be down to stress or feeling run-down.
  4. Have you been feeling low more than usual? Have you been struggling to find joy in the things that would usually make you happy?
  5. How much alcohol and/or caffeine are you consuming? Are you turning to these to help you wake up in the morning or relax in the evening? Doing this habitually can mask feelings of tiredness and, eventually, cause you to get run-down.

Dr Atkinson adds: “If you feel constantly run-down and unwell, then you should arrange an appointment with your doctor. They may want to examine you and run some tests to see what the next steps should be.

“It’s important to remember that GPs are still available to speak to. Don’t delay seeing your doctor because of the current coronavirus pandemic, maintaining good general health is still vitally important and that includes seeing your doctor when you don’t feel well enough to carry on with your daily activities.”

Images: Getty

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