The pressures of 21st century life can leave many of us feeling fatigued. Many of us have demanding jobs, high stress levels, don’t get adequate sleep and often eat poorly, which all takes its toll on our health and can zap our energy levels. That’s why it’s important to know what steps you can take to put you back on track.
So, what’s causing your fatigue and what can you do about it?
This article explores the diet and lifestyle changes you can make to maintain stable energy levels and optimise your level of daily functioning.
How To Balance Your Blood Sugar Levels to Boost Energy
The Blood Sugar Rollercoaster!
One of the most common causes of a dip in your energy is due to imbalances in your blood sugar levels.
We’ve all been there – that mid-afternoon slump where you experience a huge drop in energy.
You’re counting down the hours until you can escape work and, in the meantime, you’re thinking about reaching for the biscuit tin to keep you above water.
It is commonplace for people to turn towards sugary carbohydrates to give themselves a boost in energy, but this simply sends you aboard the “blood sugar rollercoaster”. However, you can avoid all of this with some simple adjustments to your diet.
First off, it’s worth knowing that there are two different types of carbohydrates: simple carbohydrates, and complex carbohydrates. The difference between the two is the rate in which they are digested and released into the blood stream.
Simple carbohydrates include:
- Energy drinks and fizzy drinks
- Doughnuts, cakes and biscuits
- Ice cream
- White bread and white pasta
Simple carbohydrates are usually very processed and have a simple chemical structure which causes sugars to be released extremely quickly into the bloodstream, leading to a rapid insulin spike (and subsequently a vast sudden increase in energy). However, not too long after your sudden energy peak, you start to suffer from a rapid decline.
Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, tend to be minimally processed, have longer structures of sugar molecules and have more fibre in them (which helps to slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream). Therefore, incorporating more complex carbohydrates into your diet can help to stabilise your blood sugar levels. It supports a gradual release of energy in the body, without any sudden spikes or drops.
Examples of complex carbohydrates include:
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
Another way to maintain consistent energy is by paring your macronutrients, for example, combining complex carbohydrates with protein which can also help to slow down the release of sugars into the bloodstream.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies That Can Cause Low Energy Levels
Another reason you might be feeling consistently tired is because you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency. Having a routine blood test with a Nutritionist can help you to identify any deficiencies.
Vitamins and minerals that you could be deficient in which are related to feelings of fatigue include:
Studies show how low levels of vitamin D have been linked with fatigue, and upon supplementing with vitamin D3 the severity of participants fatigue symptoms improved (Roy et al. 2014). People residing within the UK are often advised to supplement during the winter months from October – April due to getting limited sun exposure which is our primary source of vitamin D. Whilst you can obtain some vitamin D from foods, it can be difficult to reach your daily quota through this alone.
For this reason, you should consider using a vitamin D supplement during the winter months.
Vitamin B12 is responsible for supporting your energy levels as well as your nervous system (amongst its many other health benefits). If you typically eat a lot of animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy, you will probably be meeting your daily requirements.
However, if you’re vegetarian or vegan you may be deficient in this vitamin, and this could be contributing towards fatigue. If this is the case, you should consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement.
If you don’t have enough iron then your body isn’t able to produce enough haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that enables them to transport oxygen around the body, causing your body to not work as effectively and be deficient in energy as a result.
If you are wanting to get more iron in the diet, try introducing more iron-rich sources such as:
- Red meat
- Legumes such as edamame beans, chickpeas, kidney beans
- Dried fruit such as dried apricots
- Pumpkin seeds
Iron from animal sources is more bioavailable than plant-based sources of iron. If you are vegan or vegetarian, include a source of vitamin C with your iron-rich foods to support the uptake and absorption in the body. An example is having a kidney bean chilli con carne with a squeeze of lime juice (the vitamin C in the lime juice supports the iron absorption in the kidney beans).
Magnesium is a mineral that supports over 300 biochemical reactions within your body. One such process is energy production, as magnesium helps to converts our food into energy.
Depending on your age and gender, the daily requirements of magnesium for adults’ ranges between 310 – 420 mg.
Magnesium rich foods include:
- Dark chocolate
- Fatty fish
- Leafy greens
Whilst it appears to be very easy to reach your required intake of magnesium by eating a varied and balanced diet, soil depletion means that today’s crops are much lower in vitamins and minerals than they were decades ago. Plus, stress is also a known magnesium-depleter. If your healthcare practitioner has advised you to take a magnesium supplement, it can be beneficial to take one that dissolves well in liquid, as these have been shown to be more completely absorbed in the gut than the less soluble forms (Magnesium 2021).
Potassium is a mineral and it is also considered an electrolyte. It helps with nerve and muscle function, amongst also being a factor in a wide range of other bodily processes. When potassium is in short supply, it can cause muscle weakness as well as widespread fatigue.
If you find that you are deficient in potassium, introducing more potassium-rich foods into your diet will be worthwhile. Potassium is found in foods such as:
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- White beans
- Coconut water
Can Caffeine Make You More Tired?
Many people rely on their daily cup of coffee to increase their energy levels throughout the day, but what if this is having the complete opposite effect?
Our bodies produce a molecule called adenosine which plays a role in your brains sleep-wake cycle. At night these adenosine molecules bind to adenosine receptors in the brain which then cause your neurons to fire more sluggishly, slowing the brain down and causing you to become sleepy.
Caffeine blocks these sleep-inducing adenosine receptors, causing you to become alert. Therefore, your body may experience a build-up of adenosine, and so once the caffeine wears off, you can suddenly feel very tired.
If you drink caffeine regularly enough you may also build up a tolerance. This is because if your adenosine receptors are consistently blocked by your daily intake of caffeine, your body will manufacture additional adenosine receptors, which is why you may feel you require more and more caffeine to stay alert and keep you awake, because there are more adenosine receptors to block.
Therefore, if you feel constantly tired and rely on caffeine it is worth abstaining from it for a while. Once your caffeine tolerance wears off, so do these additional adenosine receptors that your brain has manufactured and unregulated, allowing you to restore a natural balance of energy.
The Importance of Sleep For Energy Levels
Getting good quality sleep each night plays a role in your energy levels through the day. When you enter the stage of deep-sleep in your sleep cycle, this is the time when your body starts to repair itself, enhancing your ability to produce ATP which is your body’s energy-making molecule. ATP harnesses the chemical energy garnered from the breakdown of foods and transfers it to fuel other cellular processes.
How Can Stress Affect Energy Levels?
When you encounter a stressful situation, this triggers a nervous system reaction in your body known as the fight or flight response. When your brain determines a threat it sends signals to your sympathetic nervous system causing your adrenal glands to pump adrenaline into the bloodstream, which gives you that surge of energy to deal with a threat. For example, back in the Neolithic days, if a caveman encountered a tiger, his fight or flight response would kick in for him to do either one of two things: fight the tiger or run!
However, the issue we face nowadays is that people are accessing this fight or flight response regularly for things that aren’t necessarily a threat, for example, receiving a work email. This is a micro-stressor, but when this happens time and time again, accessing your fight or flight response can put you in a state of chronic stress. This can severely tax your energy levels because pumping all that cortisol into your bloodstream is an energy-demanding process!
Therefore, taking an active approach into considering how you deal with stress can help you when it comes to your energy levels. Considering lifestyle factors and introducing mindfulness exercises such as deep belly breathing, meditation, and hypnotherapy can be highly beneficial.
Roy, S. Sherman, A. Monari-Sparks, M. et al. (2014). ‘Correction of Low Vitamin D Improves Fatigue: Effect of Correction of Low Vitamin D in Fatigue Study (EViDiF Study)’, N Am J Med Sci. NCBI [Online]. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4158648/ (Accessed 31 August 2021).
McCarty, D. (2010). ‘Resolution of Hypersomnia Following Identification and Treatment of Vitamin D Deficiency’, J Clin Sleep Med. NCBI [Online]. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21206551/ (Accessed 31 August 2021).
(2021). ‘Magnesium: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals’, National Institute of Health, [Online]. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/ (Accessed 31 August 2021).