Tired of being tired? Here is how to avoid fatigue and boost your energy
A lot of people these days complain about feeling tired all the time.
It’s true that the pace of life seems to be picking up with each day – most people have to deal with multiple distractions, tasks and problems – which often takes significant effort and results in the lack of energy. We are all busy – so busy, in fact, that most of us admit to getting less sleep than we need. Quickly eating on the go (because who wants to waste time on a formal sit-down meal in a relaxing environment, when you have so many tasks to complete, right?) makes stellar dietary choices difficult – and results in consumption of loads of junk that makes us fat, slow, sleepy, tired and dissatisfied with everything.
Many food and drink producers seem to be offering a helping hand in fighting this lack of energy. From seemingly benign coffee, tightly intertwined into many cultures, to “energy drinks” (that contain a wide variety of compounds and make an even wider variety of claims to “give you wings” – or at least keep you alert and focused) – there appears to be plenty of solutions.
But before you attempt to artificially boost your energy (and, if you overdo it – give yourself heart palpitations, anxiety and sleep problems in the process) – perhaps it makes sense to try to understand why you have a lack of energy in the first place. If you are feeling sleepy and sluggish during the day, if you were rather left alone, if you drag yourself everywhere you need to go, if you cannot concentrate on the task on hand and if your solution to this is upping your caffeine intake – this article is for you.
Let’s look at how you can better manage your mental and physical energy and always be full of life and ready to go!
Simple carbs make you tired
What is often causing the feeling of sluggishness, sleepiness and lack of energy is often a drastic drop in blood glucose levels – which typically follows a similarly drastic increase in blood glucose levels that trigger insulin secretion. Insulin is a master hormone that, among other things, helps shuttle glucose from your blood into your muscles and/or fat tissue, through activation of GLUT1, GLUT3, and GLUT4 glucose transporters in the plasma membrane of the relevant cells.
The speed, with which glucose gets absorbed by these tissues is somewhat proportional to the amount of insulin released, which, in turn, depends on how high blood glucose levels jump in the first place. When your body senses a spike in blood glucose – such as when you consume food rich in simple carbohydrates – it releases a lot of insulin to deal with it. Because the amount of insulin released is large (relatively speaking), blood glucose levels drop quickly, as it gets absorbed by muscles and – in case there is no more available “storage space” – fat tissue. It is those sharp declines that make you feel drained, sleepy and hungry. The latter often pushes you towards quick sugary snacks to quickly satisfy your cravings – and restarts the never-ending vicious circle.
In other words – if there are no spikes in blood sugar there won’t be sharp drops. If, following your meal, your blood sugar rises gradually – and not too much – the amount of insulin released by your pancreas is much less. This means glucose will be absorbed slowly, too. Such relatively stable levels of blood glucose, with no major spikes and declines mean stable energy levels.
Takeaway # 1: Avoid food and drinks containing a lot of sugar or starch. Limit carbohydrates as much as possible to complex ones that digest slowly and provide a “timed release” of glucose. Examples include non-starchy vegetables, carbs that contain a lot of indigestible fiber and some fruits.
Taking it a step further with ketones
OK, so we figured that to avoid energy and focus draining decline in blood glucose we need to avoid sugary and starchy foods. Does this mean we should stay hungry, suppress our appetite and only eat celery sticks for snacks?
Not quite. In fact – if you chose that route, you would quickly produce the opposite effect, because then you would be entering the land of general caloric restriction. In other words, you can’t just reduce the overall amount of nutrients (assuming you are not overeating right now, which – believe it or not – often is the case) – if you are removing simple quick carbs (and especially if your body is used to those carbs as quick source of energy and your brain rewards you every time you eat something sweet with a quick release of dopamine) you are going to feel hungry and tired at first. Fighting this hunger using willpower can only take you so far – at some point you are bound to fall off the wagon and succumb to some horrible binge-eating. And even if you have exemplary willpower and are able to resist forever – you end up reducing your total caloric intake, which your body will not necessarily thank you for. In an effort to conserve energy, it will lower your basal metabolic rate (slow down heartbeat, brain activity, breathing as well as lower your temperature and hormone levels). You will feel cold, irritable, tired and deeply dissatisfied. This is NOT what you are aiming for.
So what do you do? You replace the missing carbs with high quality fats. What this does is keep you satiated and eliminates the stress response that your body triggers when it senses starvation (which is precisely what is happening when you reduce your carbs initially). In a short time after getting rid of simple carbs, your body learns, once again, to burn fat and ketone bodies for energy (stored or consumed) and this brings you closer to the state of mild ketosis.
As we discussed in the past, ketone bodies – or ketones, as they are sometimes called – represent a separate class of energy substrate that most of your body tissues are able to utilize to produce energy supporting their normal function. Normally, ketones are a byproduct of fat metabolism, although exogenous ketones can also be consumed directly so that they get quickly converted into energy immediately (more on this later).
Ketosis – the state during which your body primarily uses ketone bodies to produce ATP – is a mechanism of evolutionary adaptation that your body is able to utilize whenever there is a shortage of glucose. Your body doesn’t immediately switch to ketone bodies once you restrict carbs – first it tries to utilize glucose stored in various tissues (muscles and liver) and only when storage runs mostly empty does it switch to ketone bodies. If your body didn’t use this source of energy, you could only survive about 2-3 days without food until your glucose stores run empty.
Having your cells run on ketones, as opposed to glucose, does not create insulin spikes – and, thus, does not drastically decrease blood glucose levels. Such blood glucose levels are never zero – even in deep ketosis (which takes A LOT of discipline to get into) there will be some blood glucose registered – but they will be low and stable.
So, in the end, you are killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand, absence of drastic insulin/blood glucose fluctuations eliminates “crashes” and lack of energy and, on the other hand, you are supporting your body’s energy needs with fat and ketones (which are more efficient type of fuel than glucose) so you are not really hungry and can properly power your daily activities. Most of us have plenty of fat stored on our bodies to utilize as fuel.
This is why simple (but brilliant) solutions like Bulletproof Coffee are so effective as countermeasures against lack of energy and for improving mental focus. If you lived on another planet for a while and haven’t heard about Bulletproof Coffee – it’s a blended drink containing low-toxin coffee, grass fed-butter and (most importantly) – high-quality concentrated MCT oil. MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides and it is just what it sounds like – triglycerides (storage and transport form of lipids, where fatty acids are attached to a backbone glycerol molecule) that contain short carbon chains of fatty acids. Medium chain fatty acids (those containing between 6 and 10 carbon molecules, often abbreviated C6, C8 and C10) get metabolized very quickly by the liver into ketone bodies, thus, providing a quick and easy supply of ketones without the need to enter into dietary ketosis.
Various other solutions exist on the market, consisting of ketone salts and ketone esters – those are different chemical derivatives of ketone bodies that your body can utilize immediately. These are typically quite expensive and ketone salts can often increase mineral levels too much (sodium, potassium, lithium, magnesium – these salts come in different varieties).
From that perspective, MCT oil still remains the cheapest and next best exogenous source of ketones (which you don’t necessarily have to drink with coffee – since it is neutral in taste and odor, you can even use it in cooking and for dressing) after endogenous sources from fat metabolism. The latter, as we established, requires depletion of stored glucose/glycogen to be triggered.
Here is an interesting side note to the metabolism of ketone bodies. If you recall from previous articles, glucose metabolism can be both anaerobic (no oxygen required) for shorter bouts or aerobic (oxygen required) for longer bouts of physical exertion. Fat metabolism also requires oxygen and typically also supports longer bouts of physical exertion. Ketone bodies do not require oxygen to be metabolised and to produce energy – and their metabolism generates a lot of energy. What this means in reality is that by elevating the level of ketone bodies you can technically survive longer without oxygen. Interest in this effect has already been shown by special forces, such as navy seals, or elite swimmers for whom this may mean being able to stay submerged under water without having to come to the surface to re-breathe). Don’t go experimenting with this, though – leave it to the trained professionals and doctors that can monitor these effects.
Takeaway # 2: After removing simple carbs, reduce complex carbs too, by substituting them with high-quality fats to train your body to utilize fat and ketone bodies as a stable and “clean” source of cellular energy. Next time you are feeling sluggish – forget that snack bar and reach for MCT oil. Better yet – create your own “emergency” snacks out of fat bombs.
Exercise… not to feel tired?
When you are already feeling tired, tiring yourself even more with exercise may sound counterintuitive – but resist the temptation to brush it off as garbage advice. Paying more attention to your physical exercise routine is a proven way to feel more energized and alert – granted you do everything correctly.
Exercise – which is a stressor that your body doesn’t necessarily like – triggers adaptation and overcompensation mechanisms all throughout your body. Those adaptations include:
- An increase in the number of and improvement in the function of mitochondria – power plants of your cells responsible for oxidation of fat and glucose and the resulting production of energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). More mitochondria normally means more energy can be generated when needed (this is precisely what your body is trying to do – support future energy requirements by increasing capacity), but also creates extra energy-generation capacity at rest, eliminating energy dips, lack of focus and sleepiness;
- Exercise remains one of the very best methods of controlling blood glucose – often way beyond the actual exercise session time itself. As we learned at the beginning of this article, eliminating drastic blood glucose fluctuations is the key to controlling your perceived energy levels and focus. One way that exercise achieves this is through improving insulin sensitivity – which means you need less insulin to utilize the same amount of glucose in your blood. Again, less insulin means less dramatic reduction in blood glucose following its release – and, thus, a stable energy.
- Resistance exercise builds muscle (do not be afraid of this if you are a female, by the way – you will not look “too muscular”). Whether your goal is “bulking up”, bodybuilder-style, or simply getting some better-defined and proportionally-built lean muscles – the extra muscle mass represents extra storage capacity for glycogen (polymer storage form of glucose). In fact, most of the glycogen stored in your body is distributed across various muscles (and a smaller amount is stored in the liver). While muscle glycogen cannot be utilized for any purpose other than supporting muscle metabolism itself (unlike liver glycogen, muscle glycogen cannot leave the muscle) – this extra storage capacity means you can fuel more work without getting tired – and spare liver glycogen for other needs. In the end, higher available storage (more muscle tissue) and better processing (improved mitochondrial capacity) may increase available energy. This – and the fact that exercise triggers the release of glucose from the breakdown of glycogen in muscle) and liver and from gluconeogenesis from fat, all of that providing you with yet more fuel is the reason why you often feel energized after you exercise correctly.
- Exercise alters your brain chemistry. By releasing neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine (and, possibly – dopamine) and increasing the level of endorphins it not only creates the feeling of “pleasure”, but also decreases pain (mental or physical) and generally improves the way the neurons function. In addition, exercise triggers neuroplasticity – synthesis of new brain neurons and improved connections between existing neurons (and, similar to what is happening in the muscles, improvement in mitochondrial capacity and volume). It not only can make you smarter and more efficient in utilizing your brain power – but also, by improving brain chemistry, it makes you feel energized and alert.
- That said – make sure that your constant fatigue is not actually a result of overtraining No matter how much of a motivated gym junkie you may be – you need enough of a rest between your sessions.
Takeaway # 3: Make sure you include a few exercise sessions in your weekly routine. The biggest bang for your buck in terms of effort and time required is provided by resistance exercise in a form of heavy weight lifting – but even if you can’t do that for whatever reason, properly structured quality aerobic exercise (which can often be as simple as brisk walking or a team game played outside) can do the trick.
An obvious reason why you are feeling tired all the time is a potential lack of sleep. This can mean not enough time spent in bed, low quality of sleep during the time spent in bed, or both.
There are no hard and fast rules that define how many hours of sleep you need – but your body is usually quite good at indicating that you need more. If you have trouble waking up in the morning, hit the snooze button several times before you are even able to open your eyes, feel like you are not fully awake even hours after you get up, fall asleep during your commute – all of these signs indicate you may not be getting enough sleep. A common solution that most people use to counter these signs is an ever-increasing dose of caffeine – but while coffee can provide temporary relief, long term repercussions of overstimulating your adrenal glands under the condition of insufficient sleep can be quite bad.
Insufficient sleep is a serious problem and a huge stressor. Literally, lack of sleep messes up your hormonal profile by increasing cortisol (stress hormone), leptin (hunger hormone), reducing testosterone (anabolic muscle-building and fat-reducing hormone, among everything else) and serotonin (“feel good” hormone, for a lack of a better definition). As a result, if you are sleep-deprived, you will eventually gain more body fat, feel depressed (or at least much less happy), have difficulty adding lean muscle mass, compromise your immune system and trigger a whole bunch of negative processes as a response to this stress. In fact, sleep deprivation (which doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a total lack of sleep – anything less than what your body needs can be classified as sleep deprivation) is actually considered a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO). Interestingly, this includes shift work.
Spending hours in bed tossing and turning doesn’t help either – so the first thing you need to address if you are feeling you are not getting enough sleep is improving sleep quality. We have discussed this in the past, but to quickly reiterate, here are the key points:
- Eliminate any sensory stimulation – this means sleeping in total darkness and silence;
- Reduce exposure to blue/white light during the few hours leading to your bed time – studies show that exposure to blue/white part of the light spectrum reduces melatonin levels. If this exposure is happening at night, it messes up your circadian rhythms. Melatonin is considered a sleep hormone – when controlled by natural light, its levels gradually rise in the second half of the day and peak at night before bed time (when the sunlight spectrum shifts towards yellow and red – and then disappears completely). Then, in the morning, when sunrise introduces progressively whiter light, melatonin levels fall – and you are ready to face the day. This is not only controlled by special receptors in your eyes, but also (as some experiments show) – by photoreceptors that may be hidden in your skin. The problem with most artificial lights (or blue TV screens) is that they don’t take in consideration the time of the day – and being exposed to blue or white light (especially with weird frequencies, such as LED) before bedtime can rob you of melatonin and disrupt your sleep. Melatonin is not only important for sleep – it is a very potent natural anti-cancer remedy (maybe that’s why chronic sleep deprivation is associated with cancer risk?). So if you use artificial light at night, stick to lamps that can either shift color temperature towards the red part of the spectrum or simply use yellowish/reddish lamps to begin with. This works both ways, however – not being exposed to enough white light (whether natural daylight or the light that simulates the same color temperature) means your melatonin may not drop and those receptors in your eyes never send the signal to the rest of your body that you should be active. This (and, maybe, vitamin D deficiency) is why a lot of people experience “winter blues” and lack of energy (due to less time spent under sunlight).
- Sleep in the room that isn’t too warm. Your body temperature drops slightly when you sleep – similarly, there is a feedback loop of sorts: when the body temperature drops slightly, it may make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. If you are too warm, it may make sleeping uncomfortable. Being too cold doesn’t help either – so make sure the temperature is just very slightly lower than normal – and perhaps crack open a window to let in fresh air.
- Do not engage in activities that excite your nervous system too much directly before bedtime – it may make it difficult to unwind and relax. This includes demanding exercise. Exercise during the day is great for a good night’s sleep. Exercise just before bedtime – not so much. Similarly, avoid watching dramatic TV shows – for the same reason.
- Don’t make alcohol your go-to sleep remedy. Despite the perception that it knocks you right out – alcohol (especially in excess) can actually disrupt your sleep. Yes, you can fall asleep faster, but overdo it – and you will be waking up more often and have a far lesser quality sleep. If you need to take something to help you fall asleep, try herbal teas or a small dose of melatonin in a pill. Remember, though, that these are supposed to be temporary measures (such as when you are changing time zones or adjusting to a new schedule or trying to establish a routine, etc.) – if you need some help falling asleep all the time (especially if you follow all the recommendations above) – this might be an indication of a deeper-rooted problem, including nutrient deficiency, chronic stress and adrenal fatigue or something even worse. Get tested.
- Exercise – as well as demanding mental activity – increase the amount of sleep you need because this is the time when your body recovers, rebuilds and detoxifies itself. Keep this in mind if you recently increased your exercise time (or load) – getting more sleep is one of the best adjustments you can make to actually get the benefit.
Takeaway # 5: Do not ignore sleep under any circumstance – you are probably not getting enough of it in any case. Improve the quality of your sleep time by creating sensory deprivation and avoiding bright white lights before bedtime.
Another reason why many people often feel sleepy and sluggish is the lack of relevant micronutrients – such as vitamins and minerals. Generally speaking, vitamin levels should be verified through blood lab tests – but let’s briefly reiterate the importance of just a few common ones that may be a culprit.
- We discussed Vitamin D on numerous occasions. This vitamin is extremely important for a lot of functions in your body – and one of these functions is regulating energy levels.
- Magnesium is needed for ATP production. Inadequate magnesium levels lead to lower levels of intra-cellular ATP – and, as a result, lower energy and the feeling of being burned out and tired all the time. Since magnesium is at the center of chlorophyll molecule (that gives plants its green color), best sources of magnesium include leafy greens, such as spinach and chard – but you can also get it from almonds and good mineral water (among other important minerals, of course – check the labels for mg/L content).
- Constant fatigue is a telltale sign of anemia – a condition characterized by low red blood cell count (or low hemoglobin). The backbone of red blood cells that carry oxygen to various tissues (required for energy production through aerobic pathways) is iron. Therefore, iron deficiency may lead to lower energy and chronic fatigue. Animal foods (meat and organ meats, especially liver) are excellent sources. Some other (plant) sources include dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, beans, etc. Don’t overdo it with iron supplements, though, as iron toxicity is as bad as iron deficiency and true iron deficiency is normally rare in people who follow a balanced diet.
- All B vitamins are important for energy – and animal products (such as meat, especially organ meat) continue to remain the best and most bioavailable source. Especially important in this group if you are always feeling tired is vitamin B12.
- Iodine is needed to produce thyroid hormone (which regulates your metabolic rate) – and iodine deficiency is actually quite common. Sea vegetables and saltwater seafood in general are an excellent source of iodine, but it is also contained in dairy products, black-eyed beans, eggs and cottage cheese. Again, most of the time there is no need for extra supplementation – and be careful when consuming too much sea vegetables, such as kelp, known for its high iodine content , as consuming too much can lead to adverse effects – you can actually cause hypo- or hyperthyroidism.
- Selenium is another important mineral for proper thyroid function, as it helps convert inactive thyroid hormone into an “active” form. So, if you are deficient, you may show symptoms of hypothyroidism. Good sources of selenium include Brazil nuts (again – don’t overdo it with Brazil nuts, only 2 or 3 would do the trick), wild salmon, shellfish and kidneys.
Takeaway # 4 – make sure you get enough macro- and micronutrients through a variety of natural sources and whole foods. If your diet is lacking for whatever reason – add quality supplements.
If you are feeling cold, sluggish, apathetic, unhappy or sleepy outside your normal bedtime – you may have a hormonal problem. Hypothyroidism (or underactive thyroid) is a common problem (especially with women) that manifests itself in the symptoms described above. Obviously, those are only symptoms and you should treat the cause – but before that, you need to confirm that the problem really exists. Thankfully, this can be done with a simple blood test and a discussion with your doctor. The treatment is equally easy – inexpensive thyroid medication pills that already improve the quality of life for millions of people (needs to be prescribed by the doctor if the lab tests show you are deficient).
The reasons for hypothyroidism, however, may be numerous – and, once you remove the culprits, thyroid problems may very well disappear. Better yet – by making sure you don’t introduce them in the first place, you will likely avoid thyroid problems to begin with. In the vast majority of cases thyroid function is disrupted by some sort of auto-immune condition (including, but not limited to Hashimoto’s disease) – when your immune cells start attacking your own body tissues (thyroid, in this case). The reasons for autoimmunity may be different – they range from genetic disorders to exposure to environmental toxins – but, quite often, they are triggered by dietary choices. Case in point – grains and gluten. There appears to be a link between consumption of grains and autoimmunity (including Hashimoto’s), so even if you don’t feel anything, being a bread-eater may quietly destroy your thyroid. Keep in mind that the danger of underactive thyroid is obviously not just feeling sleepy and cold – these are just symptoms of underactive metabolism. The real danger comes from complications related to hyperthyroidism – mental health issues, infertility, birth defects and a bunch of others. So having a clean diet can go a long way.
Most of the time – there is a bigger reason behind feeling weak and tired all the time. Your constant fatigue is your body trying to tell you something. Don’t ignore the symptoms and try to artificially boost your energy using some questionable remedies – instead, focus on overall health, diet and exercise and pay enough attention to reducing stress and resting. You likely already know these rules through reading this website. They are simple but infinitely effective and provide a multitude of benefits –which also include feeling naturally energized and happy. If you make only a few simple changes – you will feel better, guaranteed!