Low energy levels: why you’re feeling tired and what to do about it

Been feeling like you’ve got low energy levels? You’re not alone! Recent research suggests that one third of us experienced the lowest energy levels we’ve ever felt over lockdown.

Plus, 23% of us are finding our usual methods of recharging difficult to squeeze into our budgets or schedules.

Luckily, there are plenty of simple ways to support low energy levels. We explain why you might be feeling more tired lately and reveal what you can do to help.

What causes low energy levels?

It’s possible you’re experiencing fatigue if you’ve had lower energy levels than usual for a while.

Described as an overwhelming feeling of tiredness, fatigue includes symptoms like reduced concentration, short-term memory issues, moodiness and low motivation. Fatigue is often linked to lifestyle, as well as social, psychological or general wellbeing, although it can be caused by certain medications or underlying medical issues.

Poor sleep

tired sleep anaemiaWhile it may seem obvious that insufficient shut-eye causes low energy, the extent of this connection is lesser known.

Sleep is essential for a number of vital functions, including energy conservation. There’s a lot to this but one key aspect is the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP provides the energy to drive many processes in our cells.

Research shows that when we enter the non-rapid eye movement stage of sleep (NREM), our levels of ATP increase. Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, causes a significant reduction in ATP levels.

Although the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended sleep duration for adults is seven to nine hours, the average British person only gets a little over six. That might not seem like a lot to lose out on per night, but this adds up to a seven hour shortfall – at least – each week. Worse still, a recent study into how sleep patterns have changed during lockdown found that 33% of us are sleeping fewer hours than before. No wonder we’re all so tired!

Plus, it isn’t just how many hours you’re asleep that matters. Quality of sleep is important too. This means falling asleep within 15-20 minutes and not waking up more than once in the night.

Sleeplessness may also worsen in winter due to shorter days. Less exposure to light can impact the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that controls the sleep cycle. If you haven’t been sleeping well since the clocks went back, that could be why! 

Stress

PMSStress is a major energy zapper. Whereas poor sleep prevents us having energy in the first place, being stressed mainly drains it.

While perhaps less useful in the modern world, the body’s response to stress is an evolutionary mechanism designed to keep us safe. When we experience stress, the hypothalamus sends a signal that triggers the production of adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline produces the effects that we’re most familiar with: increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure and a temporary boost in energy. However, cortisol is the key player when it comes to stress impacting energy levels.

Cortisol regulates a number of processors in the body – including metabolism. Under stress-free conditions, cortisol selects the starting materials (such as fat or carbohydrate) needed for any given chemical reaction, and is produced at varying levels throughout the day.

During times of stress, however, cortisol floods the blood stream with glucose (sugars). It curbs functions that aren’t essential to surviving the current situation. It also causes the brain to use up its glucose stores much faster. These stores are needed to maintain energy throughout the day, meaning we have less available for other activities.

Chronic stress can also deplete key nutrients needed to create energy, such as vitamin C, magnesium and B vitamins.

You’re likely experiencing more stress than you realise, too. Micro-stresses – like running late or losing connection in the middle of a Zoom call – may seem small but these build up, leaving us drained. One study even found that these ‘daily hassles’ can actually be more impactful than big events such as moving house.

Change is a big stressor too. It’s no surprise we’re feeling more stressed – and therefore less energised – given how much we’ve all had to face lately.

Poor diet

woman cooking foodFood is the key raw material for energy. It makes sense that not getting enough could make you more tired. However, exactly what you eat is important too. It should come as no surprise that failing to maintain a healthy, balanced diet can impact your health, including your energy levels.

Remember the food pyramid? That applies here. Most of us know we need at least five servings of fruits or vegetables each day, but we often forget about other categories like carbohydrates, protein and fats.

Skipping meals could also be an issue. We’ve all been guilty of missing the odd one, especially when working from home. However, whereas doing so as part of a tried-and-tested method like intermittent fasting has a wealth of benefits, forgoing meals because you’re too busy can have detrimental effects.

Although missing the occasional lunch seems like a small thing, these unplanned shortfalls could easily be harming energy levels. Eating regular meals boosts brain power, helps control your weight and reduces your risk of illness. It also gives you enough energy throughout the day.

It isn’t just about calories either. Vitamins, minerals and nutrients are important too. Being deficient in vitamin D, for example, makes tiredness more likely, with one study showing that fatigue was more likely among those short of the nutrient.

How to support your energy levels

Create a sleep routine

Establishing a good sleep routine is one of the soundest ways to boost energy levels.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to skip sleep during the week and catch up on Saturdays or Sundays. You’ll likely get back less than 50% of what you lost, even if you sleep to your heart’s content on the weekend. Professor Matthew Walker spoke to Liz about this on her recent podcast episode.

“It’s a lovely idea but sleep is not like the bank,” explained the UC Berkley Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology. “You can’t accumulate a debt and then hope to pay it off at a later point.”

Instead, your best bet is to aim to go to bed at the same time each night. You also need to be consistent with when you wake up. Yes, even on weekends! Your body will begin to release melatonin around your bedtime, making it easier for you to get to sleep naturally.

It can help to build a bedtime routine that includes soothing activities like drinking sleep-inducing herb teas, soaking in a warm bath or listening to calming music. Why not try out our homemade botanical bath milk recipe to get you started?

Try doing any other pre-bed activities, such as reading, with the brightness no higher than 180 lux. Reducing screen-time before bed is also a must.

The perfect environment for sleep

To cover all bases, create an environment where noise or light won’t disrupt you during the night. That means blackout blinds or a sturdy eye-mask, and ear plugs if necessary. If removing noise is impossible, using a fan acts as a good alternative. Your brain will quickly get used to it as background sound and it will cover up most disruptions.

Plus, it isn’t just about nightly activities. What you do in the day is key too – and it’s especially vital to get enough light. Sun exposure is essential to maintaining a regular circadian rhythm, the natural process which regulates our sleep-wake cycle. It’s also worth avoiding caffeine after around 3pm. Recent research shows it interferes with the circadian rhythm, delaying the production of melatonin.

As ultraviolet (UV) levels decrease during winter, it can take up to two hours to get enough in January, as opposed to 10 to 20 minutes in peak summer. We’d recommend working by a window for part of the day, as well as heading outside for some exercise.

Take a peek at Liz’s tips for the perfect night’s sleep here, and see our recent Science of Sleep podcast with Professor Walker to learn more.

Make sure you’re getting enough nutrients

Vitamins and minerals perform hundreds of essential roles in the body, including helping convert food into energy.

A healthy, balanced diet is the surest way to ensure you’re getting enough of everything. This means fruits and vegetables, starchy carbohydrates, and proteins like beans, fish, eggs or meat, as well as dairy or alternatives plus small amounts of unsaturated oils and spreads. See the NHS energy ‘diet’ here for the recommended servings of each.

Essential vitamins

Not all nutrients are equal when it comes to supporting energy levels. Vitamin C, vitamin D and B vitamins are especially vital.

B2, for example, is one that our body uses to turn fats, proteins and carbohydrates into energy. Also called riboflavin, this vitamin is water-soluble. This means it gets flushed out of the body quickly and must be replenished daily. Luckily, you’ll find B2 in lots of different foods! From eggs and lean meats to dark-green vegetables and even bread, you can get your daily dose in numerous ways.

Whereas a B2 deficiency is fairly rare, it’s more common to be short of B12. This vitamin helps make red blood cells to transport oxygen round the body plus release energy from food. Deficiency can lead to weakness and fatigue, or even anaemia. As B12 is mainly found in animal products, it’s recommended that vegans take supplements to ensure they are sufficiently supporting themselves. Recent research also shows many elderly people are deficient in the nutrient.

Vitamin C is renowned as an immunity booster but it’s also an energy superhero! Research shows that those with higher vitamin C blood concentration levels increase fat oxidisation, a bodily process where fatty acids are broken down to create energy. Plus, vitamin C has also been shown to reduce fatigue. You’ll find this vitamin in citrus fruits, as well as peppers, strawberries, and even potatoes.

Lastly, a vitamin D supplement is a great way to support your energy levels. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to fatigue too, with one study showing that increasing levels of the nutrient led to a significant improvement in symptoms.

Read more on supporting immunity here, plus how it helps health and energy levels in Liz’s recent e-guide Stay Well, Stay Energised. 

Include exercise

yogaIt may seem counterintuitive but exercising regularly can actually make you feel less tired. Many of us struggle to stay active during winter months, and this could well be a factor in depleted energy levels.

Although physical exercise might be the last thing we feel like doing when we’re tired, multiple studies show exercise fights fatigue and boosts energy levels. Resarchers say that normally inactive people could increase energy by 20% – and reduce fatigue symptoms by 65%! This is simply by doing low- or moderate-intensity exercise around three times per week.

As there was no significant difference in outcome between the low and moderate exercise groups, whichever you choose will have a positive impact on your energy levels. Whether it’s yoga or cycling, adding physical activity into your life will support your energy levels, as well as your mood and general wellbeing.

Stay well, stay energisedDownload Stay Well, Stay Energised: Liz’s Essential Guide to Supporting Your Health and Immunity

Do you know your leukocytes from your lymphocytes? This guide dives into the science of our under-appreciated immune system and shares Liz’s 7 secrets to staying well and achieving a beautifully balanced immune system.

Download Stay Well, Stay Energised: Liz’s Essential Guide to Supporting Your Health and Immunity

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Words: Tilly Alexander