Feeling sluggish? Rather than beelining back to the coffee pot, take a moment to understand what fuels your body best and try a science-backed alternative instead
Written by Lauren B. Johnson
Whether it’s weary winter weather, exhaustion after a chaotic year or the ebb of holiday cheer (and sugary treats), January seems to drop many peoples’ energy levels into the doldrums. So how can we power through this period of sluggishness and beyond? Rather than pour a third cup of Joe, we talk with Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated primary care doctor Chase Yonce about the ways our bodies gain energy and what to do about lackluster levels.
Our bodies use energy to power every living function, from activating muscles to driving the heart to firing the brain. And foods, specifically carbohydrates, are our primary source of fuel (though fats and proteins contribute too).
So how does a bowl of oatmeal pack the sort of drive our bodies need to survive and thrive? To understand how the human body gleans energy, we need to think back to that high-school biology lesson on the metabolic process of cellular respiration. In a nutshell, acids and enzymes in the stomach break down the carbs we eat into a type of sugar called glucose. Cells then combine glucose with oxygen to form usable energy molecules, known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
Having enough energy to move from morning through midnight (even sleeping taps our tanks) requires a well-balanced diet that includes complex carbohydrates for glucose production and fatty acids and lean proteins for ATP formation. “To maintain our energy reserves, we need to be consistent with our nutrition and avoid fad diets that starve the body of a certain food group,” explains Dr. Yonce. “Unless there’s a medical need to limit carbohydrate intake (as with diabetes), our bodies need carbs.” The key is to opt for the right amount and type.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that complex carbohydrates—such as starchy vegetables, whole grains and legumes—make up 45 to 65 percent of our total daily calories. These contain long sugar molecule chains that yield lasting energy. Certainly, you’ve heard breakfast touted as the most important meal of the day. “Breakfast literally means ‘breaking the fast’ that we’ve taken overnight. This early meal provides the day’s first dose of energy,” says Dr. Yonce. Opt for a sustainable fuel of nutrient-dense carbohydrates such as oatmeal, fruit or whole-wheat toast rather than a processed replacement like sugar-laden cereal that burns out quickly.
Unfortunately, we too often turn to simple carbs for a quick burst of energy. These foods have been refined into basic sugars that flood the blood with excess glucose. “While they do give you energy, there are consequences, including a hard crash when that rush wears off,” Dr. Yonce explains. The higher you climb up the glucose cliff, the steeper the drop back to your baseline, where you’ll be left feeling lethargic and craving more carbs. Chronically high levels of blood sugar can damage organs, nerves and blood vessels and may lead to type 2 diabetes, a heart attack or a stroke.
To avoid being tempted by cookies when the mid-afternoon slump hits, keep smart snacks at the ready. Whole-grain crackers and low-fat cheese, plain yogurt with berries, nut butter on apple slices and lean turkey or tuna on whole-wheat bread make excellent grab-and-go options. To keep energy levels consistent, dietitians also recommend small meals and snacks every few hours rather than three large meals.
Another common energy crutch, caffeine, also causes a spike-then-crash pattern. “Caffeine isn’t necessarily bad in moderation, but it can become addicting,” notes Dr. Yonce. While a small amount of this naturally occurring stimulant may help the brain feel more alert, increase metabolism and boost exercise performance, regularly overdoing the coffee and energy drinks can lead to elevated anxiety levels, headaches, sleep disturbances and high blood pressure. To reduce the risk of side effects, the Food & Drug Administration recommends limiting caffeine intake to 400mg (or about three cups of coffee) daily.
Stop & Go
Of course, dietary balance isn’t the only equilibrium we must strike. Rest and physical activity each have a direct impact on our energy levels. Seven to eight hours of sleep nightly restores the body in myriad ways—from steadying hormones to regulating appetite—and research suggests that good ZZZs also increase ATP production. Poor sleep leaves you feeling fatigued and thus less energized throughout the day, so set the stage for a good night’s rest by avoiding disrupters like alcohol, caffeine, exercise, stress and screens near bedtime.
Physical activity is as vital as rest for keeping energy levels high. Though it seems counterintuitive that burning calories boosts our get-up-and-go, routine exercise trains the body to be more efficient
at manufacturing and using energy. A hard-pumping heart increases blood flow while heavy breathing draws in more oxygen, acting to move usable energy molecules to our muscles (remember that cellular respiration refresher above?). Physical activity also releases endorphins that help boost our mood.
Without regular movement, ample rest and sensible nutrition, we’re at risk for unhealthy weight gain, which taxes our energy reserves. Not only does an overweight body need more energy to perform everyday tasks, but excess weight can also lead to sleep struggles, trouble breathing in oxygen and impaired ATP production.
Persistent fatigue affects up to 45 percent of American adults, reports the journal Medical Hypotheses, primarily as a repercussion of those all-important lifestyle factors. However, chronic lethargy can be a sign of a more serious condition. “If, despite eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep and being in good health, you still struggle with low energy for more than six months, visit your doctor,” says Dr. Yonce. “Of course, if acute fatigue is directly impacting your daily life, you don’t need to wait that long.”
Fatigue, which generally refers to extreme mental or physical tiredness and a lack of energy, has been linked to a wide array of autoimmune, endocrine and psychiatric conditions. To zero in on a diagnosis, a primary care doctor begins with a physical exam and lab work to discover any imbalances or deficiencies in hormones, vitamins or minerals. For example, anemia due to an iron deficiency is a common culprit for low energy, since iron is essential to producing the red blood cells that carry oxygen and ATP throughout the body.
A sleep disorder could also be at play. American Family Physician reports that sleep apnea affects more than a quarter of adults and contributes significantly to daytime fatigue. If hormone deficiencies are identified, an endocrinologist may help navigate uncontrolled diabetes or a glandular condition such as hypothyroidism, which affects some 10 million Americans. In fact, most major diseases, including heart disease, many cancers, lupus and multiple sclerosis, as well as rarer conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and adrenal insufficiency, manifest in fatigue, among other symptoms.
The good news? Only one out of 10 fatigue cases is rooted in a recognizable medical cause, according to research published in The BMJ health journal. That means that more often than not, you can find more energy on your plate, under your bed sheets and inside of your sneakers.
Uppers & Downers
Energy levels fluctuate due to a multitude of lifestyle factors. Here, find some quick pick-me-ups for when your reserves feel low, as well as some surprising causes for not having enough oomph
REDUCER: Dehydration. One of the first signs that the body is low on fluids is fatigue. Fluid loss causes blood volume to drop, so the heart has to work harder to push oxygen and nutrients through the bloodstream.
BOOSTER: Drink plenty of water. The National Academy of Medicine recommends 15.5 cups per day for men and 11.5 cups for women.
REDUCER: Multitasking. Neuroscientists report that rapidly shifting your focus among several tasks at once quickly guzzles the brain’s oxygenated glucose supply.
BOOSTER: Organize yourself. Make a feasible to-do list each day, then focus on one task at a time.
REDUCER: Smart devices. Whether from the blue light that interrupts circadian rhythms or the elevated emotions associated with social media, too much screen time can disrupt sleep.
BOOSTER: Get some fresh air. Simply being in nature for 20 minutes a day can boost energy levels, reports the Journal of Environmental Psychology.
REDUCER: Poor posture. A misaligned spine puts undue pressure on joints, ligaments and muscles, which drains the body’s energy stores and can lead to poor circulation.
BOOSTER: Exercise. Moving the body in the way it was intended raises energy-promoting neurotransmitters in the brain and gets ATP-laced blood flowing to our muscles.
REDUCER: Negativity. A sour mood can be mentally draining, especially when you spend too much time anticipating the next bad thing that may happen.
BOOSTER: Relax. Find healthy ways to deal with stress, such as taking a walk, talking to a friend or meditating.