Updated: May 5
Do you feel like your energy levels are low and you can’t figure out why? Do you feel drained after a day at work and can't wait to go to bed? Do you feel the need to snack on junk food and caffeine to keep your energy levels up? These are all signs of poor energy levels, which may be related to your daily habits and behaviours. Poor energy levels can be associated with a variety of factors including:
Physical Activity Levels
Underlying Medical Conditions
To help you understand why you feel low in energy we will cover each of these potential contributing factors and what actions you can take to limit the impact these play on your energy levels starting with your diet.
Every action you take requires energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is like your body’s currency where you need to constantly earn more to pay for your expenses. In this scenario, you eat food to convert into ATP, which your cells then use to fuel every physiological process in your body. You will no doubt be more familiar with the concept of calories and how all food has a number of calories depending on how much fat, carbohydrates, and protein it may have. But calories are just a unit of measurement used to determine how much energy can be derived from any food item. Every day you need to eat enough food (or calories) to meet how much energy (or ATP) you use up each day. If you do not eat enough food then your energy levels will be too low and you will need to use energy stores (i.e your body fat) to make up the shortfall. This can leave you feeling tired and lethargic. If you have ever been on an extended diet you may be familiar with the feeling of low energy levels that may accompany caloric restricted diets. But, it is not just how many calories you eat that may affect your energy levels. Empty calories such as those found in junk and convenience food are often low in nutritional value, meaning it does not have the essential nutrients you need to remain healthy and keep your energy levels high.
Several key nutrients play a pivotal role in maintaining good energy levels including Vitamin D, Vitamins B1 - B12, and Iron. These vitamins are found in their highest amounts in animal-derived foods and may be more commonly low in vegetarians/vegans. For meat-eaters, try to eat red meat 1 - 2 times/week and spend 30 minutes in the sun during the summer months. Taking Vitamin D supplements in the winter months may help with possible deficiencies. For vegetarians and vegan, try eating yeast extract (e.g. Marmite) or take a vitamin B complex, eat Iron-rich foods like spinach, and lentils with vitamin C rich foods, and if you eat dairy, enjoy dairy-rich foods while in the sun to help vitamin D absorption. If you are vegan then spending time outside is still beneficial for Vitamin D levels in the summer months but you may also need supplementation during the winter months.
To learn more about nutrition and how to optimise your diet to your needs, check out my book Eat Move Perform: Volume 1 - Nutrition & Supplements on our books page and learn everything you've ever wanted to know about healthy diets and optimising your diet for better athletic performance and good health.
Physical Activity Levels
Exercise has a causal relationship with how much energy you have and can be the difference between finding your day-to-day tasks easy or exhausting. This causal relationship is based upon the concept of the Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID). This tells us that your body will adapt to the specific demands of any activity, no more, no less. If your daily life consists of sleeping and sitting during your commute, at work, during lunch, and in front of the TV/computer, then this is exactly what your body is adapted to do. If these are the only things you’re doing then this is also the most difficult tasks you do all day.
“If you do not regularly engage in activities that are harder than your day-to-day activities, then you are only accustomed to this level of effort and will feel tired at the end of the day and become exhausted quickly when trying something even slightly harder like rushing for the tube, taking a walk, or having to climb the stairs.”
This is why sedentary people are more likely to feel tired and have poor energy levels. This can feel like a bit of a Catch-22 situation as you are tired because you don’t exercise enough but you also don’t have the energy to exercise. The good news is you don’t need to be running regular marathons, lifting weights 7 days a week, or playing sport every hour of the day to boost your energy levels. To start with, all you need to do is pick one thing which is somewhat challenging for you and do it consistently until it feels a little easier. Then pick something slightly harder again and repeat. For example, if you currently do no exercise at all, you could start with walking for 10 - 20 minutes, 2 - 3 times/day (possibly as part of your commute and/or lunch break), and steadily try to build up your walking pace. As this feels easier you could progress onto jogging 2 - 3 kilometers and working your way up to either running at a faster pace or increasing the distance covered. This is just one example and is not the only option. The same principle can be applied to anything including cycling, gym classes, at-home exercises, calisthenics, etc. Just remember to start off simple and build from there.
At the other end of the exercise spectrum, you may find that you have poor energy levels but are exercising at a high level of effort most or all days of the week. It may surprise you that this is also related to the SAID principle discussed above and General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). GAS is the idea that some stress (in this scenario exercise is the stressor) is a good thing and forces your body to adapt and get better/stronger (this is called supercompensation). However, too much stress or insufficient recovery between periods of stress leads to overtraining and a decrease in your results and a reduction in your energy levels.
Retrieved from https://sanescohealth.com/blog/general-adaptation-syndrome-stages/
In the modern world of convenience, we are inclined to want things now and want to rush to the finish line. This isn’t helped by misleading products like '6-Second Abs' or 'Lean in 15' suggesting that it only takes a small amount of time to achieve your goals. The hard truth though is nothing worth having comes easy and good health and superior performance take time and effort. If you are training flat out with little time to rest and recover then you are not giving your body the chance to adapt to the demands you’ve imposed before giving it something new to deal with. Remember, you don’t make all your adaptations while you’re exercising, you make a lot of them while you’re resting. If you’re just starting out, exercising 2 - 3 times/week is more than enough stimulus to cause positive adaptations. As time goes on you will need to train harder or longer, slowly building these aspects up until you may need to train multiple times per day. However, this latter category is mostly reserved for those who have been consistent with their efforts for many years or are competing at a very high level. For most recreational exercisers, 45 - 60 minutes, 5 - 6 times/week is probably the max you’ll ever need. If you are training more than this or you’re still an exercise novice (<1 year of consistent training), try scaling back your efforts and be sure to leave 48 - 72 hours rest between training sessions.
When it comes to good sleep hygiene most people are only familiar with the idea of getting 8 hours of sleep per night and probably believe the more the better. However, good sleep hygiene is a little more complex than that and has 3 major areas to focus on - sleep quantity, sleep quality, and consistency. Approximately 68% of the adult population requires 7 - 9 hours of sleep per night. The "get your 8 hours” phrase comes from efforts to simplify this guidance and just recommend the middle of this range. However, some adults may require a little more sleep than average whereas others may require a little less. Typically this only extends the range to 6 - 10 hours and extremes of sleeping only 2 - 3 hours/night or 12+ hours/night are still unhealthy practices and warning signs to address other lifestyle factors.
Sleep consistency refers to going to bed and waking at the same time every day, including weekends. Your body has its own internal clock called your circadian rhythm. You can think of your circadian rhythm like your personal timezone and disruptions to your regular sleep and wake time as flying to a new timezone and experiencing ”jet lag”. When you change timezone (or in this case change your sleep routine), your body will increase cortisol levels (i.e. the stress hormone) which stimulates the fight and flight branch of your autonomic nervous system causing your heart rate to quicken, your blood pressure and blood glucose levels to increase, suppress your melatonin levels, and increase your desire for quick-energy foods such as simple sugars and caffeine. All of these actions are a protective mechanism to help you deal with poor quality/poor quantity of sleep and ensure you stay alert to protect yourself. After a long night out with friends you may be quick to assume that the reason you feel so rough the next day is due to alcohol alone, however, it could be that you also have "jet lag" from changing your nighttime routine. To help maximise your sleep, try following the below advice:
Aim for 7 - 9 hours sleep per night.
Go to bed and wake at the same time every day, including weekends.
Do not use electronic devices (TVs, computers, phones) 1-hour before your bedtime.
Try not to eat within 3-hours of your bedtime.
Do not engage in vigorous exercise within 4-hours of your bedtime.
Limit caffeine intake to less than 300mg per day (<4 cups of coffee) and no caffeinated drinks after 4pm.
Your physical, mental, and emotional well-being are closely connected with aspects from one having a profound effect on the others. If you've ever had the misfortune of losing a loved one or losing your job, you'll know how grief and stress can feel like it completely drains you of your energy levels and you want to sleep all the time. If you are in a job you hate, are constantly arguing with your spouse, suffer from anxiety/depression, or simply tend to over-analyse everything, then this may be linked to your low energy levels. Good mental and emotional well-being is an area for a blog post of its own (coming soon...) so instead to keep things succinct, here are some quick tips to help improve energy-sucking factors of your mental and emotional well-being:
Practice mindfulness meditation - Mindfulness meditation is a form of deep breathing exercises that can help you to feel calmer and more relaxed around stressful times. The easiest way to start is by using apps like Headspace or Calm.
Exercise regularly - Exercise increases vagal tone i.e. the activation of the rest and relax side of your autonomic nervous system. This has the benefit of balancing out the over-activation of the fight and flight side of your nervous system that occurs from stress, poor sleep hygiene, and excess stimulant intake.
Keep a journal - Journaling is an effective way to clear thoughts from your head and help you to work through issues. One great way to do this is by noting 3 things that went well at the end of each day. This helps you to focus more on the positives of each day and not the things that may not have gone to plan.
Break negative thought patterns - getting stuck in the way we interpret day-to-day events can lead to us expecting unrealistic expectations of ourselves and leading to feelings of unhappiness and depression. An effective tool to try to change these thought patterns is by using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). A great way to start this is by reading this self-help book by Avy Joseph.
Get outside - many of us are now working from home and are limited at times of lockdown to only leaving the house for essential journeys and exercise. Getting outside is very important to help remove you from your work environment and get in touch with nature by taking a walk through the park or to the beach. So, get some fresh air and enjoy the break from the rat race. Your productivity will increase and your mental health as a result.
Speak with friends/family/health professionals - Reaching out to family and friends to discuss any issues you are experiencing is a great way to feel some relief from your worries. A problem shared really is a problem halved so reach out to those near and dear. If you feel you can’t talk to your loved ones then make an appointment to speak with a health professional instead. They will not judge you and can help signpost you to the support you may need.
Staying well-hydrated is essential to good health. Good hydration is associated with healthy hair, eyes, and skin, healthy kidney function and digestion, better cognitive performance and energy levels, better athletic performance, and just about every else in between. Put simply, drinking more water is the most underrated way to improve your health so get drinking. But how much should you be drinking and does what you drink really matter? The short answer to this question is to drink around 1.5 - 2.0 litres per day and try for most of this to be from water. The more detailed answer takes into account your age, weight, and activity levels and is as follows:
Age 16 - 30: Drink 40 ml/kg/day of fluids
Age 31 - 54: Drink 35 ml/kg/day of fluids
Age 55 - 65: Drink 30 ml/kg/day of fluids
Age 66+: Drink 25 ml/kg/day of fluids
Fluid intake includes all fluids including those in the foods you consume. If you eat good amounts of fruits and vegetables you can take approx. 500 ml off the amount of fluids you need to drink daily. You should add approx. 500 ml of fluid back on if exercising that day.
e.g. An active 34 year old weighing 75kg should aim for 3.1 litres per day (i.e. 34 x 35 + 500 = 3,125 ml)
Underlying Medical Conditions & Medications
Some medical conditions can cause fatigue and poor energy levels including myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), coeliac disease, hypothyroidism, autoimmune disease, diabetes, glandular fever (a.k.a. mono), long-COVID (i.e. the after-effects of having COVID-19), and some cancers. Therefore, if you are following the above advise and are still tired or you have any concerns, then I strongly advise you to seek the advice of a trained medical professional who can help ascertain if there is any medical reason for your poor energy levels through appropriate testing and assessment and discuss the next step for you if necessary. Medical treatment is free to all those who need it in the UK so please do not put off seeing your doctor if you have concerns. For more information on how to register with a new doctor (a.k.a. general practitioner or GP), check out the NHS website here - https://www.nhs.uk/nhs-services/gps/how-to-register-with-a-gp-surgery/
If you are currently taking regular medication I would strongly advise you to read the information documents that come with your prescriptions. These will tell you about the possible side effects of taking your medications which may include tiredness or fatigue. If this is the case and you are suffering from these fellings quite strongly, you may wish to discuss this with your GP at your next medication review, to see if there is a possible alternative that may work just as well but without the tiredness side-effects.
If you liked this post and want to learn more, check out our other blog posts including diabetes prevention, reducing your risk of heart disease, common back pain myths, and more. If you are looking for a more bespoke service to help improve your health or athletic performance, then please check out our services page to learn about the ways we can help.