Heads up! Spring fatigue on the way

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Heads up! Spring fatigue on the way

You just got back to the office from your lunch break. Sitting at the desk, staring into the monitor, you feel your mind has gone blank, a hazy cloud slowly fogging up your brain. The humming of the disk drive, the clicking of the keyboard and the murmur of the phone conversation in the next cubicle all become softly muted until you sense that you are sinking into a state of semiconsciousness, and drift off to sleep. Startled awake from your stupor by a beeping nose alerting you to the arrival of a new e-mail, you wonder how long you had dozed.

Many people, particularly sedentary office workers, find it nearly impossible to stave off the sleepiness that follows lunch, a problem that is exacerbated in springtime. The sun may be shining, the flowers blooming and the butterflies fluttering, all awake from a deep winter's slumber, but your body feels sluggish, not revved up for the start of the new season of activities signaled by the arrival of spring.

Koreans have long called this state of fatigue that hits around March and April chungonjeung or spring fatigue syndrome, similar to spring fever as known in the West. In addition to tiredness, spring fatigue syndrome sufferers have a wide range of complaints, including languor, sleepiness, loss of appetite, indigestion, headaches and dizziness. Although the symptoms are very real, it is not a condition or disease that can be found in medical textbooks.

What causes this mysterious malady, according to one doctor, has more to do with the changes in the weather than anything else. The temperature rise in spring is the major reason for chungonjeung. The body needs to get ride of the excess heat it generates to maintain a relatively constant body temperature. When the air temperature rises, the skin temperature also needs to rise in order for the body to generate heat and maintain a constant temperature. The body raises the skin temperature by increasing the blood flow in the skin, at the expense of reduced blood circulation to the internal organs and muscles. The rise in skin temperature is the direct cause of the springtime fatigue and lethargy.

Temporary vitamin insufficiency and increased physical activity are also generally associated with spring fatigue syndrome. The increased activities in the springtime, compared to the winter months, require more proteins, vitamins and fiber, a requirement missed by people who do not eat properly.

This fatigue syndrome is perhaps more pronounced in Korea where major changes in one's life cycle take place in springtime - graduation, start of the academic year, new jobs, projects, moving, not to mention weddings, all take place in the spring, leading to increased mental and physical stress.

Although most people adjust to the changes in the environment in a week or two, some suffer more than others. For example, people who kept active and ate well-balanced meals during the winter months are apt to adjust quickly.

From the Oriental medicine perspective, it is your physical constitution that largely determines how much you are affected by the change of season. "Persons with weak digestive and absorption systems experience lethargy and tiredness, and those with low levels of energy reserves inherited from parents also suffer likewise," explains Kim Jin-sung, professor of internal medicine at Kyung Hee Medical Center, Seoul. The fatigue and sleepiness is worse around noon when the body temperature is at its lowest and melatonin and other hormones are at their lowest levels, according to Mr. Kim.

While chungonjeung fades in due course, you may want to seek treatment if it affects your work and daily activities. "Spring is when the body's gi, or energy, starts circulating. If the problem is not adequately addressed now, the fatigue may well last throughout the year," Mr. Kim says.

To minimize the effects of spring fatigue syndrome and to adjust quickly to the change in biorhythms, Mr. Kim recommends a regular daily routine. "Refrain from heavy drinking and smoking, and exercise discipline in your life, even if only for the springtime. This will also help ensure that you stay healthy in the summer," he says.

Eating nutritious and balanced meals, rich in proteins, vitamins and fiber, is also important. Take advantage of the fresh herbs and vegetables that are abundant in spring. Skipping breakfast and overeating at lunchtime is a sure way to doze off at your desk. Heavy meals, in fact, may worsen the condition. Digestion, absorption and conversion of food into fuel require energy and a temporary diversion of more blood to the gastrointestinal tract, leading to sleepiness after meals.

In addition, an increase in blood fat particles after a fatty meal may impair the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. The level of serotonin, a chemical released by the brain that causes relaxation and mild sedation, may also increase in response to carbohydrates.

Regular exercise, including stretching, walking and even simple calisthenics can help fend off fatigue and energize you. But do not suddenly take up a strenuous exercise program if you have not been working out in the winter. Exercise should be avoided before bedtime as it can keep you awake.

While Oriental herbal medicines that aim to boost gi can be prescribed, drinking traditional teas such as ginseng tea brewed with herbs and dates can alleviate symptoms. While fatigue is a common complaint in the spring, it should not be dismissed as a temporary inconvenience. Fatigue can be a symptom of an underlying medical condition.

"If your fatigue is excessive or persists for several weeks, and is accompanied by rapid weight loss, fever and difficulty in breathing, you should consult your doctor," says Dr. Cho Bi-ryong, professor of family medicine at Seoul National University Hospital. Other causes of fatigue can range widely, such as depression, diabetes, thyroid problems, anemia, cancer and other chronic and acute medical conditions.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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