Why do I feel like a zombie?
April 10, 2008 11:05 PM   Subscribe

My head feels sluggish/cloudy and I can't think clearly. This has affected me on a daily basis for months and it's interfering with my job. I'm getting enough sleep each night and I do eat breakfast, but I feel that my brain doesn't wake up until I've been awake for a good four or five hours. I don't necessarily feel tired, just "not all there".

I recently returned to work after a few years and I'm finding it difficult to perform at full potential. I'm getting enough sleep each night and I do eat breakfast, but I feel that my brain doesn't wake up until I've been awake for a good four or five hours. I don't necessarily feel tired, my head feels sluggish or cloudy and I have trouble thinking clearly. This is a problem for me all throughout the day and into the night, it comes and goes after midday, but it's most serious for me in the mornings.

How can I stop feeling like a zombie and become sharp and full of energy while I'm at work? I know a trip to the doctor may be my best solution, but I'm hoping for some options I can try before taking that step, or at least more information before I do see someone.

This post prompted me to finally ask my question here. I've dealt with severe social anxiety nearly my entire life but I've never heard of DP, and the symptoms listed on several medical sites doesn't really sound like what I'm dealing with, but the way anonymous describes himself sounds very similar to what I'm experiencing.
posted by Sufi to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
What do you do before you leave for work? Do you do the old quick-shower-rush-out-the-door routine or do you have some time to relax, do some sort of meditation, or otherwise get your mind prepared to be engaged?

Also, coffee?
posted by Burhanistan at 11:09 PM on April 10, 2008

You say you are getting enough sleep...but do you feel like its quality sleep? A sleep study could help (or a partner who can observe). I say this because I once thought I was THE most sound sleeper and got great sleep, but was soooo slow to wake up and felt tired during the day. Finally, a partner told me that I kicked my legs like a friggin kangaroo. Not good sleep.
posted by hazel at 11:15 PM on April 10, 2008

A few thoughts...

Anxiety is often the flipside of depression. Meaning they often go together, but one is more noticeable and debilitating so you don't really pay attention to the other. Classic depression symptoms: lack of concentration, intrusive thoughts, being "in your head." Brain fog.

OTOH, other issues can make you feel not all there, and it would probably take a professional to help you figure it out (which I recommend, btw.) This is a problem that's obviously affecting your life, your work, your happiness. Not good. There is an explanation, though, and probably help of some kind. Go for it.

All the best to you, Sufi.
posted by shifafa at 11:29 PM on April 10, 2008

Same boat here, I wake up at around 5am to go to work at around 10am and have no kids, no pressing matters, it just takes me 4 or 5 hours to wake up. Drag me out of bed and directly to work and I'm a monster. I just take it as different, 8 hours sleep, 8 hours work, 8 hours play... I'd rather be awake for 6 hours before work and just have a couple of hours after work and then sleep, I love getting up at 3 or 4 am and "waking up" for a few hours before work.

I'm also on the 6 x 28 hour day rotation so hours vary, but I still like 4 or 5 hours awake before work. I'm a ZOMBIE when I get out of bed... food, coffee, tv, web, at least a few hours for brain to work.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:39 PM on April 10, 2008

Exercise? I feel manky if I don't exercise at least twice a week. It generally manifests as a general tiredness behind the eyes.
posted by kjs4 at 11:46 PM on April 10, 2008

It could be a sleep disorder: apnoea (especially if you snore), or idiopathic hypersomnolence, although in this case it is odd that you don't mention sleepiness. The only way to get a proper diagnosis is to get a referral from your doctor to a sleep medicine specialist.

If you can get hold of some modafinil (provigil), it may help. It is wisest, even if you discover it does help, to seek medical advice. It's not known to have any major side effects, but some users report anxiety from it. And the stuff's expensive; getting it on prescription will probably be substantially cheaper for you, depending on how that works where you live.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:52 PM on April 10, 2008

I often have a similar thing, it feels like I am interfacing with the world through a filter, and it's difficult to really plan ahead or care much about what's going on. I find that my mind sharpens up from about 2PM onwards.

I have been on ADD medication (dexamphetamine) and that was teriffic, but my prescription has expired and I haven't got around to getting it again.

In the meantime I started taking two no-doz (100 mg each) caffeine tablets before work and that has helped a lot, as I don't like coffee all that much and I try and avoid caffeinated soft drinks.
posted by tomble at 11:54 PM on April 10, 2008

No diagnosis but I suggest looking at how much of the B vitamin group you are getting and maybe get a supplement. The B group make an enormous and rapid difference to our 'on' switch. Also consider iron levels (I would imagine you are tired as well as mentally sluggish?). Can you get a levels check through your doctor? Exercise early in the morning after waking, even a walk round the block will kick start your day and give you more mental energy. Check your sugar intake (what are you having for breakfast?) and ensure you are drinking enough water, especially if you, like me, wind down with a drink of an evening.

IMO it's better to make changes to your diet and habits before turning to therapy and drugs.
posted by Kerasia at 12:06 AM on April 11, 2008

You might want to ask your doctor for a thyroid test. I experienced what you are describing when mine got all off kilter. I was unable to focus and concentrate and everything felt foggy and detached, very frustrating. It started to clear remarkably fast when I got my thyroid under control.
posted by lunaazul at 12:15 AM on April 11, 2008

I can slip into a similar mode if I'm not careful, and being careful, for me, involves:

1. Getting to bed at a decently early hour in the evening.
2. Waking up regularly early, no later than 5:30am.
3. Grabbing a bottle of water and going for a run (6-8 miles).
4. Stretch, shower, breakfast, go to work.
5. Start drinking water immediately at the office and keep it going throughout the day.

I'm in the office by 8, which means I've effectively shortened my wake-up time to 2.5 hours (50% reduction).

It works generally well when I'm regular, but travel and whatnot interrupting my sleep usually screws everything up for a bit. Seconding seeing a doctor too - you may need additional help here.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:17 AM on April 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Lunaazul - interesting! What other symptoms did you experience?
posted by tomble at 1:37 AM on April 11, 2008

I could be way off base, but I feel very sluggish in the morning from seasonal allergies that can cause my sinuses to be clogged. Flonase has been an effective tool after many other efforts failed.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 2:48 AM on April 11, 2008

I too had a stage where I felt horribly drowsy, groggy and zombie-like — though not necessarily tired — for the first half of the waking day, making it really difficult to focus on work, despite getting quality sleep. I cut milk out of my morning routine and, wow, problem solved. My theory is that the milk was clogging up my sinuses and causing my fatigue (and that maybe light allergies contributed, too). It actually took me quite some time to realise that my sinuses were getting so blocked up, because it had never really been an issue before. After feeling such relief after an accidental sinus massage, though, it all became apparent. So I'm not suggesting that you cut out milk — more that your sinuses might be at play here. I imagine, as ClaudiaCentre suggests, that allergies can play a role in this, too.

As is obvious from this thread, there seem to be dozens of possibilities of reasons for your complaint and, similarly, dozens of potential solutions. Many of these possibilities, I presume, a doctor could readily dismiss after an examination. I appreciate that with vague fatigue symptoms it might feel like it will be difficult to get a good diagnosis from a doctor; that's how I felt, anyway. However, in hind sight, I'm sure a doctor would have identified my sinus problem immediately and, quite possibly, the underlying contributor. A visit now might save you running through a long list of unfruitful experiments and horrible zombie days.
posted by bunyip at 4:09 AM on April 11, 2008

Besides B vitamins, the possibility of sleep apnea, the possibility of depression, etc.--you may have food allergies. Try eliminating milk, corn, wheat, eggs, soy, fish, each just for a week or so. If you horrifically crave one of these, you're probably allergic. I needed so much less sleep after I found out what I was allergic to and stopped eating it.

Also, try sleeping in a darker room. Cover your clock. Cover your windows with blackout curtains. You shouldn't be able to see a hand in front of your face. This can make you feel like you've had an extra hour of sleep or more. It's so much more refreshing. (Melotonin goes up, but, I think it lowers your serotonin levels at night, so it could potentially contribute to anxiety. Or you might not even notice.)

Consider seeing a doctor, of course.
posted by zeek321 at 4:30 AM on April 11, 2008

There are countless possibilities for what it might be in your case, but I can share that in my case, this kind of feeling was the result of too many carbs in my diet and not enough protein. Shifting the balance has made a world of difference.
posted by jbickers at 4:33 AM on April 11, 2008

Also, *bright light* and a little exercise as soon as you wake up!

Finally, a sunrise alarm clock was helpful to me too, after I made my room really dark.
posted by zeek321 at 4:43 AM on April 11, 2008

I know I'm always suggesting depression, but it really could be depression. The brain fog is generally the first hint to me that my antidepressant isn't working and I need a new one. You don' t necessarily have to feel sad to be depressed, though generally that's how it works. But yeah, see a doctor.
posted by happyturtle at 5:30 AM on April 11, 2008

I'm adding another voice to the allergies camp. If you have a minor dust allergy, you could be allergic enough to your bed to affect your sleep and leaving you congested and drowsy in the morning, which dissipates as you exist for a while apart from your bed.

I've been getting the sort of allergic response recently which isn't the standard stuffy-nose itchy-eyes allergy, instead being relegated to my sinuses and the back of my throat.

If you don't take allergy medications, you could see if claritin/benadryl helps after a few days of taking it. I'm definitely feeling better...
posted by that girl at 5:47 AM on April 11, 2008

I had the symptons Sufi describes. I realized I had been drinking 3 cups of coffee in the morning (one of which was Starbucks) and maybe 1 or 2 cokes throughout each day. I have cut back to 1 cup of coffee in the morning and NO other caffeine throughout the day. As a result I fall right to sleep at night and wake up feeling rested. I sleep basically the same number of hours, but I think less caffeine in my system is letting me sleep more deeply. Best of all, my brain fog throughout the day has lifted and overall I have TONs more energy. Next step is to start walking/jogging...since now I have mental/physical energy to do so. I did go through 2-3 days of caffeine withdrawal, but it was manageable.

To sum up, think about the amount of caffeine you are consuming.
posted by punkfloyd at 6:17 AM on April 11, 2008

Seconding punkfloyd. I cut way back on my caffeine consumption and after the usual withdrawal period, find myself more alert, focused, and able to relax in the evenings. I've eliminated cola and my beloved pressed coffee, though still drink about one cup of yerba mate in the mornings.

I tried a cup of coffee, just for kicks a week or two ago and was in bad shape all day afterwards. It was tough to kick it loose, but totally worth it. Bonus: my blood pressure has fallen from borderline-hypertension to something much more healthy and reasonable. Regular exercise has also made a huge difference over the last year.

Best of luck.
posted by jquinby at 6:33 AM on April 11, 2008

You should probably go see your doctor, because it might be something very easy to fix medically, such as an allergy, or a vitamin deficiency. On top of the B vitamins, or instead of, you might have an iron deficiency. I know when I don't take my iron tablets every day for a few days I start being groggy when I wake up, even when I've had hours of great sleep.

A simple blood test could rule out vitamin B and iron deficiencies, and an allergy test could rule out common allergins.

Depending on where you live, you MIGHT be suffering from SAD (seasonal affect dissorder) which is basically depression from not getting enough sunlight over the winter. It seems to affect Canadians that people will complain about being more tired in the winter than in the summer, although usually not enough to have it tested. Just a thought.
posted by Planet F at 8:30 AM on April 11, 2008

Tomble - other hypo-thyroid symptoms were physical things like being tired all the time and feeling like I was wearing cement shoes. Mentally it was things like inability to concentrate and focus (I was studying at the time and things would just not click even though I knew they should), and creeping depression. I felt that if I could engage with anything at all in the first place, it was buffered through a wrap of cotton fluff.
It's difficult to describe because it's fuzzy by nature but I hope I answered your question. It's a simple blood test for diagnosis.
posted by lunaazul at 10:11 AM on April 11, 2008

Are you naturally, on your own time, a night owl? Because I'm generally sluggish for 3, but that's because my body naturally isn't "awake" until around 10 even if I technically got 8 hours of sleep and went to bed by 11.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:07 PM on April 11, 2008

Out of curiosity, I have been experimenting with this stuff called Juvenon. As with all things of this nature you will have your naysayers and flag wavers. Personally, I was skeptical at first but about ten days into it I have definitely noticed a measurable kick in my energy levels through out the day and I sleep very soundly at night. A big plus is that my mental alertness is also up. A starter script is about $29. It might be worth a shot and you can avoid the caffeine route.
posted by bkeene12 at 8:19 PM on April 11, 2008

I had the same zombie feeling before I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Like lunaazul, I experienced a fuzzy inability to concentrate.. at times I could barely carry on a conversation. I just always wanted to be asleep. No matter how much sleep I already had. I was never fully alert, my body (and mind) felt fatigued and sluggish, and, I agree, there was this constant creeping depression. There are physical symptoms, too. Weight gain is one of the major symptoms. Unexplained weight gain, although there was a change in appetite. Another physical symptom was always feeling cold. (And, at times when I'm less than stellar about taking my medication, these symptoms creep back into my life.)

That's not to say that you, or tomble, have an off thyroid, but, at least in my experience, a simple blood test can determine if that's a problem.
posted by Mael Oui at 8:36 PM on April 11, 2008

I've got fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue syndrome, and the brain fog was eating my job alive until I discovered L-theanine. One 100mg capsule each morning and my brain is ready to go. I'm relaxed and can focus on my work. (I drink a lot of caffeinated beverage too, but I did that before the L-theanine and the caffeine alone didn't do much for me.)

Lots of folks will tell you to use it at bedtime to help your brain wind down, too. I don't bother, but YMMV.
posted by bryon at 9:33 PM on April 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Please check your home for carbon monoxide. One of the signs of mild poisoning is the fuzzy, can't-wake-up feeling you describe. You can get a CO detector at any hardware store. Here's one at amazon for 20 bucks.
posted by acorncup at 9:41 PM on April 12, 2008

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