If you’re struggling to get out of bed — or feel like a nap at 3pm — it’s time to boost your energy levels! Our dietitians show you how.
Ever feel as if you are running on empty and wish that you had more energy? You’re not alone! Each year 1.5 million Aussies see their doctor about fatigue. But while it’s not too unusual to feel a bit tired and run-down sometimes, particularly when going through stressful times, ongoing extreme tiredness is not normal or healthy.
Low energy levels can be directly related to what you’re eating and drinking, how much quality sleep you are (or are not) getting and the amount of rest you take. When life becomes 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 this can wreak havoc with your energy levels.
No quick fix
If you’re feeling tired and need a boost, you might find yourself reaching for energy drinks or sugary snacks. A fourth or fifth coffee to get through the afternoon slump is also the norm for many people.
The problem is, these quick-fix solutions can end up being part of the problem, fuelling the cycle of fatigue and leading to other issues such as weight gain.
It’s best to look at the causes of low energy rather than just masking them by having another cup of coffee. Here are some factors to consider:
Medical causes: Unrelenting exhaustion might be a sign of an underlying illness (see ‘What else could it be?’, below).
Lifestyle-related causes: Excess caffeine or alcohol intake, a poor diet or lack of regular exercise can lead you to experience low energy levels.
Work-related causes: Workplace stress is recognised as a leading cause of fatigue.
Emotional stress: Fatigue can be a common symptom for people who are coping with mental health problems like depression and grief.
Seven reasons you’re low in energy
1. You’re dehydrated
Staying 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 of fluid that you need to drink varies from person to person and is influenced by factors such as how much you sweat, whether you’re working outdoors or in an air-conditioned office, and the time of year.
Fatigue-fighting tip: Drink six to eight glasses of water a day. Water is the best drink, so carry a bottle of water with you at all times or keep a water glass on your desk as a reminder to top up. If you find water a bit boring, you can always add a squeeze of lemon or lime. As well as boosting your health, you’ll build your savings.
2. You’re not eating enough carbs
Carbohydrates are your body’s first preference for energy, so it’s important to include foods such as bread, cereal, potato, whole grains, rice, pasta and fruit at every main meal. If you cut out carbs, it’s likely you will begin to feel tired. But not all carbs are equal.
For lasting energy, eat low-Glycaemic Index (GI) carbs that are broken down and digested slowly. These are called ‘complex’ carbs and they include high-fibre foods, such as wholegrain bread, brown rice, lentils and beans, as well as wholemeal pasta.
Fatigue-fighting tip: Eat low-GI carbs at every meal. Choosing low-GI carbs keeps you full for longer, which helps with weight control. In the long term, this helps reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
3. You’re sitting down
On average, Australians sit for almost 10 hours each day. Sitting for prolonged periods at your desk is not just bad for your health, it’s a major energy drain and mentally exhausting.
Standing up from your desk every 30 minutes helps to get your blood circulating through your body and will send more oxygen to your brain, which increases alertness and helps you to concentrate.
Fatigue-fighting tip: Walk in the lunchtime sun! Did you know exposing your eyes to daylight helps regulate hormones that affect your mood and how well you sleep? Enjoy a short power walk at lunch in the sunlight to boost your energy levels for the afternoon.
4. You’re eating too much sugar
Snack foods are easy to eat, especially when you’re tired and can’t be bothered preparing a healthy snack, but all that sugar will leave you experiencing an energy slump. The sugar in lollies, chocolate and refined cakes and biscuits is digested quickly, which means you receive a short energy spike, followed by a sharp dip in your blood sugar levels that leaves you feeling fatigued.
Fatigue-fighting tip: Snack on a piece of fruit for afternoon tea. Chocolate and the occasional sweet treats can be part of a healthy, balanced diet, but don’t rely on them for an energy pick-me-up. Instead, reach for a banana or apple topped with peanut butter, which is naturally sweet and provides satisfying fibre.
5. You’re drinking too much coffee
While coffee may give you a quick jolt, it can leave you feeling even more tired, especially if it disrupts your sleep. Caffeine stays in your system a long time — you’ll have half the caffeine in your body six hours after drinking it.
This means when you go to bed, there can still be some caffeine in your system. It won’t necessarily stop you going to sleep — but it might stop you receiving the deep sleep that you need to feel really rested.
Fatigue-fighting tip: Swap your afternoon coffee for herbal tea. If caffeine is affecting your sleep, aim to have your coffee or tea in the earlier part of the day so that most of the caffeine has cleared your system by bed time.
6. You’re often skipping meals
There are a lot of theories regarding the ideal number of times to eat in a day, and when. The truth is, it’s important to eat regularly for steady energy levels, but there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ rule. 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 that may be three meals and two snacks. For others, four moderate-sized meals are right. The key is to eat a healthy balance of foods during the day without relying on high-sugar, low-nutrient snacks and drinks.
Fatigue-fighting tip: Have a balanced breakfast. Without the right brekkie, your body starts to conserve energy and your metabolism dips. Try poached eggs on toast, muesli with milk, or a yoghurt-based fruit smoothie.
7. You’re not sleeping enough
It seems like a no-brainer, but for people who feel low in energy, one of the biggest issues is inadequate and/or poor-quality sleep. Most people need at least seven hours quality sleep each night, and even more in the growing teenage years — or if you’re doing a lot of exercise. Good quality sleep is also key to maintaining a healthy weight.
Fatigue-fighting tip: Cut down your screen time before bed. The blue light emitted from TV screens, phones and laptops disrupts the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Find a way to relax; slow your mind.
Eat to boost your energy
Load up on these high-octane foods to recharge your energy levels.
Bananas: A speedy source of carbs, B vitamins and fibre
Eggs: Jam-packed with protein and nutrients
Sweet potatoes: Rich in carbs and vitamin C for immunity
Wholegrain bread: Great source of low-GI carbs
Leafy greens: High in fatigue-fighting folate and B vitamins
Beans and lentils: Perfect for long-lasting energy
Nuts: Chock-full of fibre, protein, healthy fats and magnesium
Lean red meat: Filled with energising iron.
What else could it be?
If fatigue is a big issue for you, don’t just put up with it — visit your doctor. Other reasons for extreme tiredness that may need to be investigated by your GP include:
This affects one in 100 people. With coeliac disease, the gut is damaged by eating gluten. As a result, the body is unable to properly absorb many of the nutrients in food like iron. 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 diabetesaustralia.com.au.
Not enough iron (iron deficiency anaemia) means your cells don’t get enough oxygen, resulting in fatigue. Young women are at greatest risk of iron deficiency, so top up your stores with lean red meat, seafood, eggs, legumes and leafy greens.
Chronic fatigue syndrome
This serious ongoing fatigue does not go away even with sleep or rest. The cause is not known, but viral infections, immune system issues and hormonal imbalances are some suggestions. Seek medical advice if you think 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 experience gain weight, too.