Struggling to get out of bed? Feel like you need a nap at 3pm? Nutritionist Claire Turnbull shows you how to get a shot of vitality.
If you ever feel as if you’re running on empty and wish you had more energy, you’re not alone. It’s not unusual to feel tired and run-down sometimes, particularly if you’re going through a stressful time, or if you have a new-born baby keeping you up all night! Ongoing extreme tiredness and fatigue, however, is not normal, nor is it healthy.
Low energy levels can be directly related to what we are eating and drinking, how much good quality sleep we are getting (or not) and the amount of rest we get. When things get busy, it's all-too-easy to grab unhealthy food and drinks on the run, and it can be difficult to unwind and to find time to switch off - all of which can wreak havoc with our energy levels.
There's no quick fix
If you’re feeling a bit tired and need an energy boost, it's easy to reach for energy drinks or sugary snacks. A fourth or fifth coffee to help get through the afternoon is also the norm for many people.
The problem is, these quick-fix solutions can end up being part of the problem, only fuelling the cycle of fatigue (and leading to other issues like weight gain).
It’s best to look at the causes of low energy rather than just masking it by having another coffee. Here are things to consider:
Is your diet varied enough?
It can be tempting to eat the same thing day in, day out, but that may not be helping if you are fatigued and tired. Including a wide variety of foods is an excellent way to help make sure you are getting the nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, your body needs to work at its best.
Add carbs to each meal
Carbohydrates are our body’s first preference for energy, so it’s important to include foods like bread, cereal, potato, rice, pasta and fruit at every main meal. If you cut out carbs, it’s likely you will begin to feel tired.
To make sure you're eating a variety of foods plan your meals and write a shopping list each week. You can then see in advance what you will be eating and you can check that you are including a variety of healthy options.
What time do you eat?
There are a lot of theories about the ideal number of times to eat in a day... six times a day, every two hours, every four hours, or don’t eat after 7pm or after 9pm.
The truth is, it's important to eat regularly, but there isn’t a generic ‘one size fits all’ rule that works for everyone. It depends on what time you get up, what time you go to bed and when you exercise.
What’s important is to get the timing right for you. For some people that may be three meals and two snacks. For others, four moderate-sized meals.
Overall, the key is to get a healthy balance of foods over the day without relying on high-sugar, low-nutrient snacks and drinks.
Eat for your body clock
If, for example, you are busy and active earlier on in the day and sedentary at night, you may find a good-sized breakfast and moderate-sized lunch and dinner works well for you.
If you sit at a desk from nine to five and then exercise after work, try having a smaller breakfast and lunch. Then have a decent-sized afternoon tea to help fuel an after-work workout, and follow your workout with a healthy dinner when you get home.
If you're regularly exercising at a high intensity, getting things right post-workout is vital for recovery. So if you exercise after work it's important to include some carbohydrate as part of the evening meal. If you don’t, your body doesn’t recover properly from the training session which may lead to you feeling tired and low in energy.
How’s your hydration?
Keeping well-hydrated is really important for your body to work at its best and can make a big difference to how you feel. The amount you need to drink varies from person to person and is influenced by how much you sweat, if you work outdoors or in an air-conditioned office, and the time of year.
Stay well watered
Drinking six to eight glasses of water a day is a good guide, but you may need more. Water is the best drink. Check your urine to see how well hydrated you are. The ideal is to be passing pale yellow pee.
Do you get outside enough?
Did you know exposing your eyes to daylight helps regulate hormones which impact your mood and how well you sleep? It's important to get outside every day and expose your eyes to the light, without sunglasses on.
Walking breeds energy!
Head out for an afternoon or evening walk when it’s not super-bright. You may find a transformation in your energy levels when you do! Many of us spend too much time inside, another reason to go for a walk before or after work if you can and get outside at the weekend.
Do you get too much caffeine?
Caffeine has a long half-life, meaning once you have had food or drink containing caffeine, it stays in your system for a long time. In fact, for the average person, roughly six hours after having caffeine there will still be half the amount of caffeine in your system as there was when you first had the drink.
This means when you go to bed, even if it's been hours since you had your coffee, there can still be some in your system. It won’t necessarily stop you from going to sleep but it can affect the quality of your sleep and stop you getting the deep sleep you need to feel really rested.
Avoid afternoon coffees
If caffeine is affecting your sleep, aim to have your coffee or tea in the earlier part of the day. This will allow most of the caffeine to be cleared from your system by the time you head to bed. It’s a vicious cycle - needing coffee/tea/energy drinks to stay awake because you're tired then not sleeping well and so on.
If you're really struggling with tiredness and fatigue yet still drink large amounts of tea, coffee and other caffeinated drinks, try weaning yourself off them over a couple of weeks and see how you feel.
How well are you sleeping?
With people who feel low in energy, one of the biggest issues is inadequate and/or poor quality sleep.
We all need sleep. It's our body’s time to take over, rest and recover.
Most people need at least seven hours quality sleep each night, and even more when you're in your teenage years and growing, or if you're doing a large amount of exercise.
Cut out any night-time stimulants
Reducing the amount of caffeinated drinks and alcohol you have before bed, as well as finding a way to relax and stop your mind from racing can be helpful. Good quality sleep is also key when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight.
What can I do now?
There are lots of things you can do to help beat tiredness and low energy.
Pinpointing the problem
If you want to start making a change now, begin by keeping a diary. Record over a couple of weeks what you're eating and drinking, how much exercise you're doing and how much sleep and rest you're getting. See if you can identify any areas to work on.
If fatigue is a big issue for you, visit your doctor. It's important to make sure there are no medical problems at play (which they will be able to diagnose).
What else could it be?
Other reasons for extreme tiredness that need to be diagnosed by your GP include:
This affects one in 100 people. With coeliac disease, the gut is damaged by eating gluten and as a result, the body is unable to properly absorb many of the nutrients in food, iron being one example. If your body is unable to properly absorb the goodness from food, extreme tiredness may result.
Having high blood sugar levels can cause extreme tiredness and is a common symptom of undiagnosed diabetes. To see if you are at risk, check out www.diabetesaustralia.com.au.
Chronic fatigue syndrome
This is serious ongoing fatigue that affects everyday life and doesn’t go away with sleep or rest. The exact cause is unknown, but a history of viral infections, immune system issues and hormonal imbalances are some suggestions. Seek medical advice if this sounds like you.
This means that your body isn’t making enough thyroid hormone and it can result in you feeling very tired. Some people will also gain weight with this issue, too.
Depression and anxiety
These can also affect how you feel and how much energy you have. Visit beyondblue.org.au.
Are you falling short on these vital nutrients?
Iron is essential for transporting oxygen in your blood. Around 20 per cent of women of childbearing age are low in iron. Not enough iron (otherwise known as iron deficiency anaemia), means your cells don’t get enough oxygen, resulting in fatigue.
Teenage girls and women of reproductive age are the most at risk of iron deficiency anaemia as they lose blood monthly, depleting the body’s iron stores. Other symptoms of deficiency include a decreased ability to exercise, shortness of breath and, in severe cases, heart palpitations.
To get enough iron
Make meals high in iron. Foods such as red meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, pulses, fortified breakfast cereals and leafy green vegetables are the best sources of iron. Iron from animal-based foods (known as haem iron) is much better absorbed than that from plant foods (non-haem iron).
Follow the Australian Dietary Guidelines and eat red meat three to four times a week.
Two things increase the absorption of iron from plant foods - vitamin C and iron from animal-based sources. So, if you eat spinach with capsicum (high in vitamin C) or with a piece of steak you'll increase the amount of iron absorbed from the spinach.
Avoid drinking tea, coffee and cola drinks with your meals as caffeine reduces the absorption of iron.
High-iron meal plan
Breakfast: iron-fortified breakfast cereal with berries and kiwifruit
Lunch: tuna, tomato, baby spinach and lemon salad
Dinner: beef and vegetable stir-fry
Snacks: fruit, mini tin of baked beans on toast
B vitamins help your body function optimally. The B group of vitamins includes eight of the 13 vitamins we need to function at our best.
B vitamins, including thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, folate and B12, play a number of vital roles in the body, like helping to release energy from the food you eat for your body to use. B vitamins can’t be stored in the body, so it's important to eat vitamin B-rich foods every day. Vitamin B12 and folate are crucial to keep energy levels high. A deficiency in either can cause anaemia.
Vitamin B12 helps with red blood cell formation.
Vitamin B12 also aids the breaking down of some fats and proteins to produce energy. A vitamin B12 deficiency (known as pernicious anaemia) has similar symptoms to iron deficiency anaemia.
Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal products like red meat, poultry, dairy and eggs which makes it a deficiency more commonly found in vegans (one study found that more than half of vegans weren't getting enough B12).
Marmite and some brands of soy milk are fortified with B12 so they make a good choice. If you’re vegan it’s generally advised you get your B12 levels checked regularly by your GP and you may need to take a B12 supplement or injection.
Folate is needed to form red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body.
Folate deficiency may also be responsible for severe tiredness, weakness and irritability. Women of childbearing age should consume 400 micrograms of folate per day and 600 micrograms per day during pregnancy (as folate is important for the prevention of neural tube defects).
Foods that are naturally high in folate include vegetables (such as asparagus, spinach and broccoli), fruit (such as oranges, bananas and strawberries), legumes (such as chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils), cereals, nuts and yeast extracts such as Marmite and Vegemite. In Australia, all bread (except organic) and some fruit juices and breakfast cereals have added folate.
To get enough B-vitamins
Include a variety of lean meats, fish and reduced-fat dairy every day.
Choose wholegrain varieties of breakfast cereals (ideally fortified), breads and crackers.
Include legumes like beans, chickpeas and lentils a few times a week.
Make sure you have leafy green vegies every day.
Include a folic acid supplement if you are pregnant or are planning a pregnancy.
B-vitamin rich meal plan
Breakfast: folate-fortified breakfast cereal with reduced-fat milk, a banana and some berries and a small glass of folate-fortified orange juice
Lunch: wholegrain lamb sandwich with baby spinach and tomato
Dinner: meat and kidney bean chilli con carne with pasta and a side of asparagus and broccoli
Snacks: wholegrain crackers with cheese and Marmite, an orange and a hard-boiled egg
Iodine is vital for keeping your thyroid gland working properly. Many people in Australia haven't been getting enough iodine in their diets and iodine deficiency is becoming a more common problem. Some researchers suspect iodine intake levels in Australia have dropped by as much as half over the past few decades.
Men and women need 150µg of iodine per day. Very low iodine intakes (less than 50µg per day) can lead to the development of an enlarged thyroid gland (or goiter) and hypothyroidism with symptoms such as dry skin, hair loss, fatigue and slowed reflexes.
One of the best sources of iodine is bread. Since 2009 all bread, except organic, must be fortified with iodine (by using iodised salt in the recipe). Other high-iodine foods are marine-based such as oysters, tinned salmon and even seaweed. In fact, 100g of oysters can give you all of your daily needs for iodine!
Try including fish or oysters regularly at lunch or dinner or use seaweed (such as yakinori which can be found in the supermarket) in salads or soups. And, if you must use salt make sure you always select an iodised variety, rather than regular sea salt. Some vegetables may contain iodine, but only if they are grown in iodine-rich soils.
Tips for getting enough iodine
Eat fish or oysters two or three times a week. This should be enough to get the recommended amount of iodine.
Choose a regular grainy bread, rather than an organic or ‘no-added-salt’ bread. Regular breads are fortified by law with iodine.
Include an iodine supplement if necessary, it's best to speak with your GP or Accredited Practising Dietitian to see if this is recommended for you.
If you must use salt, make sure you buy an iodised variety rather than specialty rock or sea salt.
High-iodine meal plan
Breakfast: cheese on toast
Lunch: tuna sushi rolls
Dinner: snapper and steamed vegies
Snacks: yoghurt, raisin toast and a flavoured milk
How much iodine are you eating?
Adults need 150µg iodine a day. The iodine contents shown below are measured per serve of each food or drink.
100g oysters = 160µg
1 sushi roll (with seaweed) = 92µg
2 slices cheddar cheese = 7µg
100g fillet steamed snapper = 40µg
2 slices bread (made with iodised salt) = 46µg
95g tin salmon = 40µg
2 small scoops ice-cream = 15µg
200ml glass chocolate milk = 40µg
200g tub yoghurt = 32µg
200ml glass milk = 26µg
95g tin tuna = 7µg
2 large eggs = 22µg
1 cup fresh fruit = <0.5µg
100g fillet beef, pork or lamb = <1.5µg
2 slices bread (without iodised salt) = 2µg
200ml glass tap water = 1-40µg
Carbohydrates are your body’s first choice for energy, so if you cut carbs it’s likely you’ll feel tired!