Energy seems to be something that almost all of us want more of. In fact, a 2017 National Safety Council survey-based report found that a whopping 43% of Americans admit to being too tired to even safely function at work (1) With a statistic like that, it’s time we all start taking fatigue and poor energy levels seriously.
But what’s causing nearly half of us to be walking around in a fog and relying on that third cup of coffee each day just to get by?
Supplements for low energy like an adrenal support supplement can help your energy levels, but instead of just reaching for the pills, read on as we break down exactly what you need to know about what energy is and gain a thorough and holistic look into what could be at the root of all this.
Table of Contents
What is Energy & Why are So Many of us Chronically Fatigued?
Before unpacking some of the hidden causes of low energy levels, we need to define what energy actually is and how it’s produced and used in the body.
We can think of energy like we think about gas for our car — the car requires it to run and when running on empty, we better get to the nearest gas station to fuel up.
And just like our cars can only run on gasoline, the human body can only run on APT, or adenosine triphosphate. The body has to physically make ATP to then be converted into energy, and the body has a total of three different chemical systems that work to convert energy. (2)
- The Immediate Energy System (ATP-PC) — we can use this to create immediate energy.
- Glycolytic System — this system uses carbohydrates to create ATP.
- Aerobic System — this system lives in the mitochondria. aka “the powerhouse of the cell”… (more on this later). This is where the majority of ATP comes from. (3)
Ok, so we know that there are three complex energy-producing systems, but there are an abundant number of factors that impact how these systems are able to work. From the type of calories we consume to the lifestyles we live, energy levels can be directly impacted.
And, being that there are so many different variables at play, it makes sense that many of us are living a life being chronically fatigued.
For example, if we aren’t nourishing our cells with the nutrients they need to produce ATP, then we get fatigued.
If we are overtaxing our adrenals with chronic levels of stress due to the rat race of everyday life, we may fall victim to less than desirable energy levels.
So, if you are one of the ones who feels like no matter what you do or how many hours of sleep you get, you just don’t have the energy you want, you are so not alone — poor energy levels have become a crisis in modern American society.
Food & Energy
Since nutrition plays such a critical role in our overall energy levels, and since all parts of our body require food for fuel, we’re taking a deep dive into how the body uses food for energy and then why the Standard American Diet is a recipe for blood sugar imbalances and poor energy levels.
How We Get Energy From the Foods We Eat
Simply put, when we consume food, the body starts the digestion process by mixing the food with both acid and enzymes that begin in the mouth and then in the stomach. When this digestion process begins, the carbohydrates from the foods are broken down into glucose.
The glucose is then absorbed by the stomach, and the small intestine and the glucose is released into the bloodstream, which then allows it to be used as an immediate source of energy or stored for later. T
Then, the body relies on insulin to help keep blood sugar levels in check, being sure that glucose isn’t just hanging around the bloodstream for too long — it does this by helping glucose get into our body cells. (3)
The Problem With The Standard American Diet & Poor Energy Levels
The important thing to remember about food for energy is that not all foods are created equal, and the foods found in the Standard American Diet are setting us up for less than desired energy levels.
- Problem #1: Insulin Resistance: Many of the packaged foods found in the US are packed full of sugar, not to mention high-fructose corn syrup, sending our blood sugar levels through the roof. With chronic exposure to these highly processed sugary foods, we put ourselves at a higher risk of insulin resistance, where the liver doesn’t respond as well to the insulin that’s trying to get that glucose into our cells. (4)
The result? It can make us feel more hungry than usual, and you guessed it, more tired than we should be.
- Problem #2: Lack of Food Variety: Since much of the Standard American Diet includes foods void of nutrient-dense foods, we may be missing out on key energy-boosting nutrients. If we aren’t getting the vitamins and minerals the body requires to help regulate energy production, we may be much more tired than if we consumed a whole foods, nutrient-dense diet.
- Problem #3: We Often Skip Meals: Let’s face it — life is hectic, and many of us are juggling jobs (maybe more than one), home life, and that never-ending to-do list. Most days, it can be hard to find time to sit down and enjoy three meals per day. But, regular meal skipping can certainly be a recipe for fatigue since the body relies on the foods we consume to make energy.
So, if that afternoon brain fog comes on strong, it may be a sign that you need a nourishing refuel.
Other Nutritional Considerations When it Comes to Poor Energy Levels
Soil Depletion: It doesn’t just stop at a diet void of the nutrients we need, in addition to the Standard American Diet, much of even the healthy foods we consume today lack the nutritional value they once had.
Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry looked at nutritional data for 43 different fruits and vegetables from 1950 and 1999. They reviewed stats from the Depart of Agriculture Nutritional data. (5)
They found declines in:
- Vitamin C
This was all linked to current agricultural practices and gives us reason to think about how the foods we consume today may not be as nutrient-dense as the foods our ancestors ate.
Food intolerance seems to be on the rise, with more Americans dealing with gluten sensitivities and 30-50 million Americans who suffer from lactose intolerance. (6, 7) Symptoms of food intolerances, such as non celiac gluten sensitivity may include tiredness. (8)
If you suspect that you may be dealing with a food sensitivity that may be leading to some poor energy levels, speak with your doctor about ruling out a food intolerance through specific testing.
Hydration & Consuming too Much Caffeine
Two other dietary-related factors when it comes to energy levels, include not hydration enough and consuming too much caffeine.
Dehydration can lead to fatigue, and while drinking that coffee or energy drink may give you an immediate boost of energy, too much isn’t a good thing. In fact, even one cup may be too much for some and possibly even make them feel tired.
Why? Because caffeine happens to block adenosine, a chemical found in the central nervous system. It’s responsible for regulating our sleep-wake cycle, and adenosine molecules bind to receptors in the brain when we are getting ready to sleep.
Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors in our brain, which is why we get that initial energy boost. But, when the caffeine wears off, we are left with all those adenosine molecules trying to bind to receptors — the result? Some post-caffeine tiredness. (9)
The bottom line? Try to limit your caffeine intake because it may not be doing much good, especially in excess, when it comes to maintaining our energy levels throughout the day.
Here’s How to Optimize Your Nutrient Intake For Improved Energy
Now that you know the long list of factors that play into nutrition and energy levels, let’s look at the solution — this involves enjoying a nutrient-dense whole foods diet, full of energy-rich foods, while avoiding the inflammatory and energy depleting foods commonly found in the Standard American Diet.
Enjoy More Whole Energy-Rich Foods
Ideally, a clean, healthy, and energy-boosting diet will be balanced. You want a good balance of healthy fats (including omega-3 fatty acids), clean protein, and complex carbohydrates. A balanced diet will also include plenty of vitamins and mineral-rich foods to fuel your body with what it needs to maintain stable energy levels all day.
Here are some examples of energy-rich foods from each food group.
- Nuts & seeds
- Coconut oil
- Chia, flax, hemp seeds
- Olive & olive oil
- Wild-caught salmon
- Organic pasture-raised eggs
- Lean organic poultry
- Grass-fed beef
- Nuts & seeds
- Dark leafy greens
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage)
- Low sugar fruits (berries, oranges, grapefruit, watermelon, cantaloupe)
A Note on Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that must be obtained from diet as we are unable to produce them on our own.
There are three types:
And while many of us know of omega-3s for their anti-inflammatory and brain-boosting properties, they also provide energy for the body. (10)
Here are some delicious omega-3-rich foods to consider adding to an energy-boosting diet.
- Wild-caught salmon
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
Avoid These Energy-Depleting Foods
In addition to optimizing your diet with energy-boosting foods, there are also foods that you will want to consider avoiding as there are many things that can be sapping your energy.
And, to make sure that you are keeping these completely out of your diet, be sure to read the back of every food label as these are commonly seen foods in the Standard American Diet.
Steer clear of trans and hydrogenated fats as they have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and have no place in an energy-boosting diet. (11)
These fats are commonly found in:
- Frozen pizzas
- Fried foods
It seems like we are always trying to limit our sugar intake and while that can seem challenging (since sugar seems to pop up in everything) keeping an eye out for hidden sources of sugar is huge. We don’t want a sugary-heavy diet for overall health purposes, but having our blood sugar levels up and down all day certainty won’t help our energy levels either.
To avoid hidden sources of sugar, check every food label and be warned that sugar can go under tons of different names!
Here are just a handful of the names sugar can hide under:
- High fructose corn syrup
- Corn syrup
- Malt syrup
- Brown sugar
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Malt sugar
We can’t talk about sugar without talking about refined carbs. These are simple carbs that are notorious for causing those spikes in blood sugar followed by a plummet, so they aren’t foods we want in our diet when looking for all-day sustained energy. Plus, they are often nutritionally void.
The key to keeping these out of our diet is to avoid as many packaged and processed foods as possible and choose whole foods first.
Staying Hydrated & Avoiding Excess Caffeine
We touched on the importance of staying hydrated to prevent low energy that often goes along with dehydration. Carry around a stainless steel or glass reusable water bottle to sip on filtered water throughout the day.
And while you’re staying hydrated, you may also want to consider cutting your caffeine intake down each day — if you drink three cups of coffee, try cutting back by half a cup each day until you are no longer relying on the caffeine to keep those energy levels going all day!
Some alternatives to caffeine for energy include adaptogenic herbs, which are often found in energy supplements without caffeine. [j]
Nutrient Deficiencies & Energy
To follow up the topic of nutrition and energy levels, we’re briefly going to go over nutrient deficiencies and how these may impact how much energy we have each day.
Think about it this way — if we aren’t getting enough vitamins and minerals from the foods we eat (or in combination with the supplements we take), we may run the risk of having lower energy levels than what we need to tackle our daily to-dos.
There are a few common issues that tend to pop up with nutrients.
- Vitamin D deficiencies
- Vegetarian or vegan diets that may not include enough B vitamins in food or supplement form.
- Not eating enough iron-rich foods
- Other gut-relate underlying causes of nutrient deficiencies. [l]
Let’s dive further into these.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin is something that medical studies and journals have labeled as a global health problem, and possibly even an ignored epidemic. (14) Research suggests that over one billion people worldwide are deficient in this vitamin. (15)
The problem? Vitamin D plays a key role in supporting our immune system and, research also suggests that a vitamin D deficiency may increase the risk of chronic health conditions such as autoimmune disease. (16) Not only that, but some studies suggest that low levels of vitamin D could lead to unexplained fatigue. (17)
The good news is that getting your vitamin D levels checked requires a simple blood test from your doctor and is easy to supplement with and is often found in supplements for energy and mood [m]— in fact, vitamin D has also been shown to support mood. (18)
Not Getting Enough B Vitamin-Rich Foods
While a plant-based diet can be incredibly nourishing, it’s especially important for vegans and vegetarians to make sure that they are getting enough B12. This vitamin plays a role in producing red blood cells as well as supporting the nervous system, and not getting enough has been linked to fatigue. (19)
Not Enough Iron
Low iron levels can also lead to tiredness, and if you aren’t consuming enough iron-rich foods, you may be at a higher risk of developing an iron deficiency.
Some great iron-rich foods include:
- Grass-fed beef
- Dark leafy greens
- Blackstrap molasses
Overall, consuming a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet is the first step in supporting the body with the nutrients it needs. However, if you’re dealing with a deficiency, speak with your doctor about proper supplementation.
Environment & Energy
While things like food, sleep, and stress are often the first things we think about when it comes to low energy levels, our environment plays a huge part too.
From air pollution to plastic use, these things can add up and may be leading to more fatigue than we think.
Air Pollution & Allergens
Poor air quality has been associated with symptoms such as headache, nausea, and fatigue. (20) And, while we can’t control all of the air pollution that we are exposed to in the air we breathe outside, improving indoor air quality in our homes may be beneficial.
This can be done through routine cleaning y to remove dust, vacuuming regularly, and investing in an air purifier.
Toxins & Plastic
Everyday exposure to toxins commonly found in home cleaning products and even plastics may be leading to our toxic load, and thus, poor energy levels. Studies suggest that exposure to BPA (bisphenol A) found in many plastic products can lead to an increased risk of many health issues such as abnormal heart rhythms and act as endocrine disruptors, both of which may impact our overall energy levels. (21)
The easiest solution here is to stick to cleaner, eco-friendly cleaning products in your home and to avoid plastic. Choose glass and stainless steel food storage containers and water bottles instead.
You can also visit EWG.org to search for less toxic personal care products to help avoid as many toxins you expose yourself to as possible.
Smoking & Alcohol Use
We all know that smoking and excessive alcohol use can negatively impact our health, but did you know that it may also impact our energy levels as well? Research suggests that smokers may feel more tired than non-smokers and that drinking alcohol may make us feel lethargic. (22, 23) To support overall wellness and energy levels, it’s best to avoid both.
Stress & Energy
Stress is something that we all experience, but some more than others, and it’s chronic stress that can really do a number on our health and our energy levels. One common indicator of chronic stress happens to be both mental and physical fatigue, and it’s something that’s becoming a major health issue in the US. (24, 25)
Stress has become a part of many of our everyday lives, from money, to work, to emotional stress, there’s no denying the fact that stress seems to be on the rise.
And, not only may chronic stress affect our overall energy levels, but it may also interfere with sleep, causing an even greater issues with energy levels.
So, what’s the solution? Ideally, we all want to try to practice some form of stress reduction daily, even if that only means 10-15 minutes of yoga or meditation. Trying to stimulate that parasympathetic nervous system to get out of that chronic state of fight-or-flight is key.
Research suggests that the following can help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, helping us feel a bit more calm. (26)
- Breathing from your diaphragm — try putting your hand on your stomach as you practice deep breathing. You want your hand to rise up and down as you breathe in and out.
- Use imagery by visualizing a calming place when you are feeling stressed.
- Practice mindfulness by being present in the moment without judgment. This takes practice, but can be a valuable tool!
In addition to these tools, exercise, getting enough sleep, and even certain adaptogenic herbs have been found to be helpful for supporting the body’s stress response.
Emotionally Draining Lifestyles
Following the topic of stress, emotional stress related to emotionally draining lifestyles can impact our overall energy levels. From emotionally taxing activities such as overuse of social media to financial strains, emotional stress can take a toll.
The problem is that social media is replacing human connection — we are all guilty of spending way more time on our phones and computers than ever before. And, while technology does help support connection (like video calls with loved ones who may live far away) overuse of social media has been linked to an increase in anxiety, depression, and isolation, all of which can impact our energy levels. (30)
We have to get back to basics by making an effort to have some human connection, getting out with friends and family and not letting technology replace that — this all comes back to how important support mental health is for our overall wellness, including our energy levels.
The solution? Try setting boundaries around social media and internet use — try not to let it consume your day and focus on doing things that you love regularly.
Emotional exhaustion can also be linked back to burnout, often something that happens when we don’t have a work-life balance. It can lead to difficulty concentrating as well as a lack of energy to be productive. (31) Job burnout[o] often occurs when there are work-life imbalances, a lack of social support, unclear job expectation, and when dealing with dysfunctional working environments. It’s also commonly seen in those working in the helping professions. (32)
If any of these pertain to you and are dragging your emotional and physical energy levels down, it’s even more important to practice self-care through getting regular sleep, exercise, and eating well. It may also be time to evaluate your work options. (33)
The bottom line here is that while we often think about low energy levels being linked to physical causes or unhealthy eating habits, we simply cannot underestimate how much emotionally draining lifestyles play into our overall energy levels each day.
Sleep & Energy
Sleep — while one of the more obvious factors when it comes to energy, it’s something that many of us aren’t prioritizing. In fact, according to a 2016 Consumer Reports survey, 27% of the adults surveyed said that they had difficulty falling or staying asleep. (34) This is a huge issue because we need sleep not only for energy, but the body needs sleep for our overall physical health as well.
Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to an increase in kidney disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and even heart disease. (35)
A chaotic lifestyle with too much stress can certainly negatively impact how much sleep we get, and it can be crippling for energy levels.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute states that those with undiagnosed stress and anxiety may be more likely to deal with sleep deficiency, giving us another important reason to get our stress under control. (36)
Here are a handful of ways to support better sleep.
- Practice daily stress reduction — try using some of the tips from the stress & energy level section.
- Limit screen time 2 hours before bed & consider investing in blue light filters & readers for tablets.
- Improve your sleeping environment by investing in blackout curtains, and some studies even suggest that those who sleep in blue painted rooms may sleep better. (37) So, if you are looking to give your bedroom a makeover, consider painting your walls a relaxing blue color!
- Try getting to bed earlier with plenty of time to wind down in the evening.
- Studies also suggest that herbs like ashwagandha and holy basil may help ease stress and anxiety, both of which often get in the way of a good night’s sleep. (38, 39)
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Energy After Age 40
It seems all too common to hear about energy levels dropping off as we age, and for some reason, it appears that age 40 is the time where many start complaining of fatigue. (40) So, whether you’re nearing 40 or are already in your 40s or beyond and struggling to sustain energy levels without relying on those daily cups of coffee, you aren’t alone.
So, what’s the deal? Why are so many people in their 40s dealing with low energy levels? Here are just some of the potential reasons.
- Post-child rearing years can lead to endless to-do lists and sleep debt that many of us simply don’t ever get back
- Hectic work schedules
- Hormonal changes
- Heavy reliance on caffeine
- Consuming a diet high in processed and sugary foods (although this is common in all stages of life, not just after age 40)
- Not getting enough sleep (again, this is not just specific to age 40)
As with every other component of low energy levels, finding ways to support your body holistically may help you get to the root causes of low energy levels.
One place to start is speaking with your doctor about potential underlying causes — a simple blood draw may be helpful in detecting potential causes such as hormonal imbalances or even low iron levels.
Another place to start with improving energy levels after age 40 is will stress-reducing lifestyle habits like starting a regular yoga practice, meditation, and getting enough sleep.
A Holistic Approach to Supporting Energy
Supporting optimal energy levels takes more than just changing one thing. While we all want a quick fix, it often involves getting to the root cause of why you may be dealing with low energy levels and then supporting the body as a whole to get those energy levels back up.
So, if you are walking around dealing with dreaded fatigue, always speak with your doctor first to discuss any potential underlying causes.
Improving sleep, reducing stress, and focusing on a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet is also key while also evaluating any environmental factors that may be affecting your energy. You could of course also start taking an adrenal support supplement alongside this.
And while it can seem overwhelming to make dietary and lifestyle changes, take just one step today. Once you get started and start to see some progress, you may be more likely to keep on going!