Here are twelve reasons why you may be lacking energy – and what you can do about them.
1. Lack of sleep, or poor-quality sleep
Poor sleep is an obvious but sometimes overlooked cause of tiredness and lack of energy. It could be that you’re simply not giving yourself enough time to sleep – ‘burning the candle at both ends’. But you could also be having problems sleeping when you do go to bed, or even sleeping for eight hours but still feeling tired and unrefreshed in the morning. If this sounds like you, make sure you’re prioritising sleep as a first step – and see our previous post on Seven Steps to Better Sleep for further help and tips.
2. Eating too many processed or refined foods
The primary fuel the body uses to make energy is carbohydrate, followed by fats and protein. But the body needs a variety of vitamins and minerals to actually convert these substances into energy – including B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, iron and iodine. If you frequently eat refined and processed foods, you’re likely to be missing out on natural sources of nutrients. As a guideline, ‘processed’ foods tend to include most things that come in packet with a long list of ingredients – from baked goods to biscuits and treats, and even most ready meals and breakfast cereals.
Start by focusing on eating real foods and preparing homemade meals where you can. Include lots of vegetables, as well as healthy sources of protein such as fish, eggs and unprocessed meat.
Taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement can also help ‘fill the gaps’ – although should not be a substitute for a healthy diet, of course.
3. Specific nutrient deficiencies
Common nutrient deficiencies that may result in low energy include iron, vitamin B12 and magnesium.
Those at higher risk of low iron include vegetarians and vegans (the form of iron in animal meats and fish is easier to absorb than that from plant foods); women before menopause, who lose iron every month in their menstrual period; and infants and children. Unless you know you’re low in iron, it’s best to get your doctor to test your iron level before taking an individual iron supplement.
Deficiency in vitamin B12 is also common amongst vegetarians and especially vegans, as there is little – if any – natural B12 in plant foods. Like iron, vitamin B12 plays a vital role in building red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body. B12 deficiency can also be caused by a condition called pernicious anaemia, which affects its absorption. Your doctor will test your vitamin B12 level if you complain of low energy. But supplementing vitamin B12 is very safe, and vegetarians and vegans are recommended to take a regular supplement.
Magnesium is primarily found in whole plant foods – green leafy vegetables, seeds and nuts, beans and pulses and whole grains. Unfortunately, levels can be lower than they should in these foods due to depletion of the soil they grow in. A magnesium supplement may be beneficial for those who have low energy – and this mineral is very safe to take on a regular basis.
4. Blood sugar swings
Swings between high and low blood sugar tend to happen when you eat refined or sugary foods or drink sugary drinks. Initially, your blood sugar level rises rapidly, which causes a surge of insulin to be released to take the sugar into your cells, causing your blood sugar to drop a bit too low. The result is a dip in energy – as well as cravings for more sugary or carb-rich foods! A drop in blood sugar also can happen when you skip meals or go for many hours between meals.
As for point 2 above, focusing on eating ‘real’ foods is the best way forward if this sounds like you. Real foods include vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses, eggs, whole grains, whole fruits (not fruit juices), and minimally processed meats, fish and dairy products such as full fat cheese or natural yoghurt.
5. Chronic stress
Initially, stress can make you feel more ‘fired up’ and energised. But when it becomes chronic or unrelenting – such as with a high-pressure job – then it can start to cause fatigue. Doing what you can to reduce the source of stress, or better manage stress, is a priority.
Certain supplements may also help to manage stress. A vitamin B complex supplement and magnesium supplement can be a good place to start. Also look for a rhodiola herbal supplement for the relief of the symptoms associated with stress, such as Higher Nature’s Rhodiola Stress Relief.
6. Thyroid problems
Thyroid hormones regulate our metabolism, including how quickly and efficiently we make energy from the foods we eat. So underproduction of thyroid hormones – known as hypothyroidism – can be a cause of fatigue or low energy. Hypothyroidism is surprisingly common. It occurs most frequently in women of 40–50 years of age, but can happen at any time – and to men as well. Other symptoms may include weight gain, feeling the cold, constipation, low sex drive, low mood or depression, hair loss, and dry skin. If you think this sounds like you, then see your doctor for a check up.
Intensive or long training sessions – or inadequate recovery between sessions – can be a primary cause of fatigue in athletes or anyone who is very active. Prioritising sleep and making sure you’re eating enough – including enough carbohydrates – between sessions is essential. It may also be necessary to adjust your training programme for a time.
8. Lack of exercise
As well as too much exercise, a lack of exercise can also kill your energy, making you feel sluggish and weary. Exercise boosts your circulation to deliver oxygen and nutrients to your cells, keeps your metabolism up, maintains your muscle mass and improves your stamina and endurance. The amount and type of exercise that optimises your energy varies from person to person, but it’s usually best to stick with gentle to moderate exercise and listen to your body: if you’re wiped out after exercising, then dial it down. Walking can be a good place to start.
9. Lack of daylight
The circadian rhythm is our body’s natural 24-hour cycle that helps us feel awake during the day and sleepy in the evening. Natural exposure to bright light during the early part of the day and then darkness at night helps to regulate this cycle. Unfortunately, many of us don’t get an optimal amount of daylight, especially in winter when we’re more likely to be cooped up indoors. The result can be sleeping problems as well as feeling tired and sleepy during the day.
The best way to address this is – you guessed it – get outside! Even a half-hour walk in the morning or walking at least part of the way to work can help. Even on a cloudy or rainy day, the natural light is many times brighter than any standard indoor light. If you struggle to get outside, invest in a light therapy box (often targeted towards sufferers of seasonal affective disorder) that mimics the spectrum of natural sunlight, and use it in the morning as per instructions.
10. Low testosterone
A drop in testosterone levels can be a cause of fatigue in men – most commonly after around 40–50 years of age. Testosterone is not only responsible for the male sexual characteristics and sex drive, but also plays a role in energy, mood and motivation. For men who are also experiencing symptoms such as low sex drive, weight gain, low mood, or difficulty gaining muscle, it’s worth asking your doctor whether low testosterone could be a cause.
Low testosterone can in turn have various causes, including chronic stress, overtraining, poor sleep, nutrient deficiencies, or a high alcohol intake.
11. Not drinking enough water
Water is vital for chemical reactions that release energy in our cells, as well as for delivering nutrients and oxygen to cells and removing waste products. Aim to drink about 1.5 to 2 litres of water a day, which can include caffeine-free teas and liquid in foods such as soups.
12. Certain medications
Some prescribed medicines can have fatigue as a side effect. If your energy level has dropped since starting a medication, talk to your doctor. (Do not stop taking a medication unless agreed with your doctor.)