Energy is almost an ethereal thing that so many of us wish we had more of. We envy children and the youth with their abundant energy and wonder why are my energy levels so low?
So many people run their lives feeling absolutely exhausted and battle ongoing fatigue throughout the day. This is not normal.
This article aims to walk you through the key reasons why your energy levels are low, the causes of fatigue and how to use effective strategies to boost energy, in real, tangible ways.
Before we dive into the practical fatigue fighting and energy-enhancing tips, it’s important to know how energy is made in the body and where it comes from.
Inside each of our cells are organelles called; mitochondria. The mitochondria are the powerhouse of our cells.
Mitochondria utilizes the food we consume and uses the macronutrients to create cellular energy – ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP fuels the cells to complete their function, and when our cells are functioning, our organs are, our bodily systems are and therefore we are; as an organism.
Throughout the day, the body manufactures energy in this way by receiving signals from light and the sun, and appetite signals (eat for fuel) inform the mitochondria to create energy in the body. As the sun goes down and nighttime falls upon us, this signal is blunted, and sleep becomes the key to replenishing our energy levels. This period gives the mitochondria “time” to balance out the see-saw effect of creating and using energy that allows us feel energized when we wake in the morning.
Energy is also, not just biological, it’s otherly.
Energy is a currency which we are constantly exchanging each and every day in the places we visit, the people we surround ourselves with, the conversations we have, the environments we live and work in, what we consume – it’s all energy.
As much as we’re focusing on the tangible, biological aspects of energy, remember, you are energy embodied.
The reasons your energy levels are low and the causes of fatigue are the result of imbalances in the body.
These imbalances develop from what you’re consuming and what you’re not consuming, how active or inactive you are and based on the quality of your sleep.
There are eight key common reasons why you may be experiencing low energy. Here we will analyse all eight and offer solutions to eliminate fatigue with practical tips and ways you can change lifestyle habits to live an energized life.
Allostatic load refers to the burden of toxins from the environment and toxins caused by oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is what forms free radicals, rogue compounds that damage cellular DNA and mitochondrial DNA. Remember, mitochondria are the key players responsible for energy production in the cells.
When we have a high allostatic load, the levels of pro-oxidant and antioxidants in the body becomes imbalanced. As a result, the mitochondria are damaged which reduces their ability to create energy.
In order to prevent this accumulation of oxidative stress, we need to look at where additional toxins are present in our lives.
Toxins may be present in your personal health care products, in plastic containers you’re eating and drinking from, regular consumption of drugs and alcohol, pesticides and fungicides from conventional foods or heavy metals and other contaminants in tap water.
The accumulation of all these toxins adds further stress and burden on the liver to effectively detoxify. Having the awareness of these toxins, therefore, shows us ways in which we can reduce them:
Additionally, include health foods rich in antioxidant compounds in your diet to help balance and cancel out an excess of free radicals.
Chaga mushroom, in particular, is a potent antioxidant superfood with one of the highest ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) values on the planet. This means Chaga mushroom is one of the most effective and potent foods to support and protect mitochondria from toxic damage, therefore, protecting DNA and improving energy production within the body.
Cordyceps mushroom lowers fatigue and supports energy production through its compound – cordycepin - which mimics caffeine in its ability to bind to adenosine receptors. Adenosine is our “sleepy compound” that builds up throughout the day and is “washed away” when we go to bed each night (1).
Additionally, Cordyceps mushroom improves oxygenation to the tissues. Hydrogen atoms are a key part of the Electron Transport Chain – the final stage of energy production within the mitochondria that yields the most ATP.
Ashwagandha has shown to decrease oxidative stress, reactive oxygen species creation and protect the mitochondria and DNA from damage, illustrating its potency as an antioxidant, fatigue fighting and energy increasing herb (2).
In general, many medicinal mushroom and adaptogen products such as Reishi mushroom increase non-specific resistance to stress. Regardless of what external or internal factors are driving an increased allostatic load, adaptogenic herbs are able to alleviate this and support healthy mitochondrial function.
One of the coolest facts about the mitochondria is that we can increase the number of them within our cells. For example, our muscle cells have numerous mitochondria that require a great constant supply of energy. Through eustress, we are able to increase the number of mitochondria in our cells and their function.
Eustress, also known as hormetic stress, is a “positive” stressor that forces the body and mitochondria to adapt and become more resilient. Examples of hormetic stressors include movement, specifically HIIT or strenuous, hard, aerobic exercise being a key stimulus (3).
Incorporating more movement into your life is critical to help fight fatigue. It also plays on the adage “use it or lose it” which directly applies to our understanding of how to boost energy.
Movement creates energy, it improves our sensitivity to insulin; improving our bodies utilization of glucose (blood sugar) to create cellular energy. Movement also releases endorphins making us feel happy and positive which in turn, provides us energy.
Alter your sedentary lifestyle by including moderate exercise in your life to stop feeling exhausted and fatigued.
We live in a society that treats sleep as a luxury, something that’s disposable, a status symbol and something to brag about when we don't go to bed. When it comes to improving your energy levels, sleep is the MVP.
In his book “Why We Sleep,” Matthew Walker goes into the deep science behind why sleep is so crucial and a non-negotiable for the foundation of good health (1).
When we don’t get enough sleep, this causes oxidative stress and targets the mitochondria which are susceptible to being damaged and will lose their ability to create cellular energy and support cellular function. If your cells aren’t energized, you don’t feel energized (1, 4).
Creating a sleep routine–a regular bedtime and wake time window–is how you’re able to boost energy levels and support proper mitochondrial function.
Ideally, we’re syncing ourselves as close to sunrise (wake time) and sunset (sleep time) as we can since light is a stimulus to create energy, and darkness being the opposite, is a time to rest and recover energy levels (1, 5, 6).
Mitochondria are controlled by sunlight and cortisol release. During the day, they fuse together and create a “super mitochondria” of sorts, producing extra energy to get us through the day. As daylight falls, the mitochondria separate, reducing the amount of energy available to us.
When we don’t get optimal sleep, this pattern becomes disturbed and we can feel “wired and tired” yet, we keep asking ourrselves, "Why am I so tired?"
Naturally, the body slows down its energy production after the sun goes down. This is the period of the day where we must unwind and restore our energy levels.
However, when we use electronic devices–cell phones, TV, tablets etc.– in the evening, the artificial lighting emitted from these devices elevates cortisol which boost energy and as a result, disrupts melatonin production which is required for a good night’s sleep.
As well as supporting mitochondrial health, the sleep-promoting compound–adenosine (Ado)– builds up throughout the day and is washed away when we sleep, resetting us for the next day.
Inadequate sleep or sleep deprivation (which is classified as seven hours or less each night) causes adenosine to not be cleared properly and thus, we roll into the next day still with the build up from the days before, resulting is us feeling chronically tired and suffering low energy (1).
We’ve discussed how external and environmental toxins might be the cause of low energy levels but we also have internal processes that cause inflammation and signal an immune response – which is very energy zapping.
Food intolerances are a key reason you may have low energy.
Not only is your body on over drive fighting a seemingly life-threatening food, it’s also causing inflammation and disrupting the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract which decreases the ability of your digestive system to actually absorb and utilise nutrients that your mitochondria needs to create ATP.
Some key signs and symptoms of food intolerances include;
We’re all unique when it comes to the food intolerances we have. It’s important to assess the differences between a food intolerance and food allergy.
An intolerance is a sensitivity that tends to elicit some kind of immune-like response but not to the extent of an allergy which in certain cases can be life threatening.
Your health practitioner can offer medical advice and will be able to test and identify if you have any food intolerances.
Alternatively, start a “food diary” and assess how your body feels 20-30 minutes after each meal to see if any of the above symptoms appear. From there you can trace it back to the meal and potentially identify which ingredient or food it could be. You can then adopt an elimination diet, taking out one food each time and seeing if the symptoms persist.
Under eating is often more common than we think, especially amongst women.
With varying reductionist diets and intermittent fasting being adopted as a weight loss tool, low energy can be equated to an insufficient intake of calories and food to fuel your body.In the short term, intermittent fasting does improve and up-regulate mitochondrial activity and efficacy. However, when the body is in a chronic state of starvation and calorie deficit that we can see this acute adaptation (6).
A typical archetype of a busy individual, someone that works a 48-hour per week, works out at the gym 4-5x per week and is eating the bare minimal due to a busy lifestyle and with weight loss as a goal.
When we don’t eat enough, we send a signal to our brain and body that we’re in starvation mode. In the short term, this is beneficial. However, in the long term, our body goes into survival mode, preserving what little energy it can create from muscles, fat stores and whatever food we’re consuming into cellular energy.
Under eating also disrupts sleep patterns and we know how important sleep is for energy production.
Chronic under eating also down regulates our thyroid hormones that control our metabolism, and thus, our ability to break down food and utilise it as fuel. Additionally, under eating causes a constant trickle of cortisol disrupts the digestive system and its ability to absorb nutrients and further drains energy because our body believes it is starving.
The opposite is also true, in that diet induced obesity impairs mitochondria function and energy production (6, 7).
Protein is dubbed the hero macronutrient and for good reason. When it comes to boosting our energy and preventing fatigue, protein has numerous roles.
The body uses protein to create pretty much everything in the body–neurotransmitters, enzymes, hormones and tissues. Everything also requires amino acids–the building blocks of protein. When we don’t have adequate protein in our diet, all of these processes are dysfunctional.
We all know protein helps to build muscle. The more leaner muscle mass the body has, the more mitochondria we have to support its function, and therefore, the more energy the body has to create and sustain.
Protein also supports healthy insulin release, improving blood sugar balance and the ability for insulin to shuttle glucose (or fatty acids if we’re adopting a low carb / ketogenic diet / intermittent fasting) into cells to utilise for fuel.
Protein is also very satiating. The ingestion of protein rich foods releases satiety hormones such as Ghrelin and Neuropeptide YY. These hormones keep us fuller for longer and enable more of that beneficial acute “starvation” we discussed previously that upregulates energy production in the body (6, 8, 11).
Constantly snacking and eating with little time in between causes blood sugar glucose and insulin to constantly spike and can actually decrease energy levels. People will often experience a “crash” and feel exhausted after consuming refined carbohydrates. This is also because digestion itself, the entire process requires a lot of energy. We need energy to break apart food and absorb it. When all know that experience on Thanksgiving or Christmas when you feel sleepy after eating a big meal. This is because all of your body’s energy and blood is diverted to digest the big meal you just consumed.
Like everything in the world of nutrition, eating too much protein actually suppresses mitochondrial function and decreases the pH and adding additional load to our liver and kidneys. Whilst protein is important, we must know what the right amount of protein is for us to consume.
Aim to consume varying food sources to reach your daily intake (9, 10).
Water is often the most under looked nutrient and superfood. We need proper hydration for our cells to work, to detoxify, to break down food and to excrete harmful toxins that add to our allostatic load and decrease energy levels.
We need water to properly digest our food, to break it down into glucose, fatty acids and amino acids to be utilized by our mitochondria for fuel, as well as water itself being split to transform these macronutrients into energy.
Water plays a direct role in gut motility and the excretion of toxins. When the body is not properly hydrated, there is a decreased transition time and the accumulation of endotoxins and metabolites within the GI tract. In plain words, when we’re not drinking enough water, we become constipated and all the compounds our bodies trying to excrete become stuck, with the possibility of re-entering circulation and driving inflammation and dysbiosis – which drains our energy and can disrupt our ability to absorb nutrients from our food.
Dehydration is also directly linked to causes of fatigue. Mild dehydration inhibits performance, increases fatigue and decreases cognition function. Rehydration can also reverse these effects (12).
Drinking high quality spring water rich in minerals does matter. You can also enhance your water quality by adding in a mineral supplement like Fulvic Acid. This helps “super charge” your water by re-mineralizing it, increase nutrient and protein uptake, support cellular health and energy on another level.
Fun fact, when we feel thirsty, the body is already mildly dehydrated by 1-2%. Drinking water frequently throughout the day, especially when we’re physically active, during warm weather and while sick is how we can support feeling energized.
As a practitioner, stress is the most common driver for experiencing fatigue and low energy.
The many causes of stress come from external sources such as the foods and personal products we consume, food intolerances, lack of sleep, inactivity, over exercising and undereating. All of these factors cause oxidative stress in the body (6, 13).
Oxidative stress produces free radicals that damage mitochondria and their ability to produce energy for us.
Stress is a complex and broad topic. We experience stress in our relationships, in our minds, our thoughts, in how we move in the world, in our workplaces, environments and for the most part, it’s unavoidable.
We all live busy lives, constantly on the go, forfeiting rest and down time out of fear of falling behind, not succeeding at our goals, feeling guilt, ashamed or being labelled lazy or unproductive. When they body is chronically stressed, digestion shuts down and adds further burden to the liver, suppresses immune system function – all of which directly impact our ability to have energy and feel energized.
Managing stress is thrown around a lot but to actually manage your stress, awareness of the stressor(s) causing low energy is the first step.
Assess where additional, unnecessary, stress is coming from in your life. From there, support the adrenals by consuming whole foods and include medicinal mushrooms and adaptogenic herbs in your diet such as Ashwagandha root, Schisandra berry, Reishi Mushroom and Cordyceps Mushroom. These powerful adaptogenic herbs help support the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) and “buffer” the physiological stress response and release of cortisol.
Furthermore, start eliminating, delegating, automating or asking for help about what causes you stress in your life. Make steps to decrease your stress burden and this will bring more space for you to add more energy-giving activities into your life.
As much as it’s about the psychological and biological aspect, creating energy is about doing more of the things you love. Do more of what lights you up, the things that ignite passion and spark in your soul. Doing more of what makes you feel happy and fulfilled will always give your energy.
There and many things you can do to increase your energy levels;
Eat whole grains and organic foods, high quality protein as well as adaptogens is how you’re able to boost energy levels. Even more specifically, is key nutrients to support mitochondrial health and function:
If low energy and fatigue persists, consult your health care practitioner to get proper medical advice and get your iron levels and thyroid hormones tested.
Low iron is a key reason why many women are suffering from chronic fatigue and low energy. A poor functioning thyroid is also a key reason for persistent low energy.
Further assessment may be required to confirm food intolerances, if leaky gut or systemic inflammation is occurring, parasites, methylation issues, heavy metals, respiration blockages and diet to uncover the core reason for why you have low energy and chronic fatigue.
There are many reasons why you may be experiencing low energy. This could be caused by a high allostatic load, not drinking enough water or lacking quality sleep.
There are numerous ways and many opportunities for us to change our lifestyle to support having more energy. Eat more protein and organic wholefoods, prioritize rest, moving your body, assessing any intolerances, drink enough water and minimize the stressors in your life.
As a concluding comment, nothing you do to create abundant energy will be an overnight health fix. No amount of water, pill or CoQ10 supplement is going to magically bestow energy on you instantly.
Having consistent energy can take time. It requires patience and consistently adopting the energy-producing habits that we’ve outlined in this article. With time and discipline, you will effectively be able to create sustainable and long-lasting energy in your life.
Remember, seek medical advice if chronic fatigue and low energy levels persist.