8 Things You Need to Know About Your Body's Energy Levels
Your energy makeover starts now
It's no wonder so many of us struggle with energy issues. We go, go, go from morning to night, running on little but grit and caffeine. But it doesn't have to be that way! "The reality is, you can get a real boost by making a few simple changes," says Nada Milosavljevic, MD, director of the integrative health program at Massachusetts General Hospital. That's why we put together this complete guide to all-day energy: It's packed with proven strategies that will keep you powered up as you plow through your to-do list. You'll also learn about surprising energy drains (social media, we're looking at you)—and how to keep them from stealing your mojo.
Allergies can leave you drained
People with hay fever often feel sluggish. "You spend so much time trying to breathe, you don't have energy for anything else," says New Jersey-based allergist Neeta Ogden, MD, spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Your congestion might also keep you awake at night: French researchers found that more than 40 percent of seasonal-allergy sufferers reported they weren't able to get a good night's sleep when their symptoms flared.
RELATED: 20 Ways to Stop Allergies
Studies have shown that over-the-counter nasal steroid sprays (like Nasacort and Flonase) effectively relieve congestion and improve quality of life—including fatigue and sleep issues—in people with seasonal allergies. Dr. Ogden suggests pairing a spray with a daily dose of an OTC nonsedating antihistamine (such as Claritin or Allegra); the drug will block the action of histamine, the compound that triggers pesky nasal symptoms. For best results, begin treatment a couple of weeks before sniffle season starts.
You can still feel pooped after a full night's sleep
It's estimated that up to 26 percent of all adults in the U.S. have sleep apnea, a disorder that involves shallow breathing or pauses in breathing while you sleep. If you're among them, you may often feel like you're in a "brain fog," even if you're clocking seven hours of shut-eye a night. If your primary care physician suspects sleep apnea, she can refer you to a sleep center. Most cases can be diagnosed with an at-home test, says Raj Dasgupta, MD, professor of sleep medicine at the University of Southern California and spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Mild cases can often be treated with lifestyle modifications, such as losing weight and avoiding alcohol before bed. Moderate or severe cases may require sleeping with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which supplies a steady stream of air to keep your airways open.
Exercise is the ultimate invigorator
A sweat session is great for upping your oomph, even when you feel like you're out of juice. "When you exercise, you release hormones like adrenaline. This hormone actually tells our bodies to ignore feelings of pain and fatigue while enhancing blood flow to large muscles," says Sabrena Jo, senior exercise scientist at the American Council on Exercise. As a result, a workout can leave you with more energy than you had beforehand—an effect that can last several hours.
And it doesn't take much. One study looked at healthy, sedentary people who began exercising three days a week for just 20 minutes a day, at either a moderate or a low intensity. By the end of six weeks, their energy levels were 20 percent higher than those of a control group of nonexercisers.
Remember: The idea is to leave the gym energized, not exhausted. "If you feel beaten down by the time you step off the treadmill, it's a sign you need to scale back," says Jo.
Are you getting enough vitamin D?
Research suggests this key vitamin plays a role in keeping us charged up. Experts suspect D helps regulate insulin secretion and metabolism, both of which affect energy levels. The nutrient has also been linked to better moods (not to mention a slew of other health benefits). If you find yourself constantly dragging, particularly in the winter, it might be worth asking your doc to check your D levels. Since it can be tough to get an adequate amount from food (sources include fatty fish, eggs, and fortified milk), she may recommend a supplement.
How to use Facebook so it's energizing, not draining
There are two reasons social media can be an energy suck, says Brian Primack, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh. "On one hand, you look at everyone's curated photos and get depressed because your life doesn't look so perfect," he explains. "But on the other hand, anything that's negative also gets magnified. Neither extreme is good." Indeed, one of his studies found a link between the amount of time spent on social media and the likelihood of depression.
RELATED: 8 Ways to Boost Your Energy
Not ready to cut the Facebook cord? Try paring your "friends" down to your actual friends. "When you don't know someone, you're more likely to have a miscommunication or be upset by something in their feed," says Dr. Primack. "But using social media to connect with old friends can have the opposite effect—it's energizing."
Eat to fuel
To improve your everyday energy, try this tweak: Substitute plant protein for animal protein whenever possible, suggests Samantha Heller, RD, a nutritionist at the NYU School of Medicine. Plants feed the "good" bacteria in your gut, she explains, which help boost your immunity to keep you healthy. They may also boost overall mood. A 2015 study found that people who followed a plant-based eating program for 18 weeks saw an increase in their productivity. Here, Heller describes a sample menu for an ideal day.
Breakfast: A Berry smoothie. Blend 1/2 cup berries with a scoop of avocado and 3/4 cup soy milk. The shake is high in both fiber and protein to stabilize your blood sugar until lunch.
Lunch: Lentil soup and kale salad. Lentils and kale are a mighty nutritional combo, offering protein, fiber, iron, potassium, zinc, folate, and more.
P.M. snack: Fruit and nuts. This duo serves up a nice balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat to help you power through the rest of the afternoon.
Dinner: Vegetarian tacos. Wrap beans with shredded lettuce and cheese, chopped tomato, avocado, and salsa in a corn tortilla for a light dinner that won't mess with your sleep.
Take a mini break. Stand up and stretch, or watch a funny video. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers found that people who took two short breaks during a repetitive 50-minute task performed better than those who worked straight through.
Go for a quick walk. A landmark study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that a brisk 10-minute walk can have a revitalizing effect, enhancing energy for at least two hours.
Chew a stick of gum. A 2015 U.K. study found that this trick raised alertness and improved concentration, possibly because chewing increases blood flow.
When fatigue is a symptom
Sometimes feeling spent isn't a problem that can be solved with a nap. Below are a few possible medical explanations for flagging energy.
Anemia. This condition, common in women, means you don't have enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to your tissues. If blood tests reveal you're anemic, you may need to take an iron supplement.
Celiac disease. Fatigue is one of the symptoms of this serious condition, in which an autoimmune reaction to gluten damages the intestines. If blood tests suggest celiac, you'll need an intestinal biopsy to diagnose it. The only proven therapy is a gluten-free diet.
Hypothyroidism. "If your body isn't producing enough thyroid hormone, you're going to feel like you're running low on fuel all the time," says Dr. Milosavljevic. This disorder can be treated with synthetic hormones.
Heart disease. A 2003 study published in Circulation found that 70 percent of women who'd suffered heart attacks had reported feeling unusual fatigue for up to a month beforehand. "Patients often say that they feel tired in their chest," says Dana Simpler, MD, internist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. After a full workup, your doc can prescribe a treatment plan.