Nutritional therapist Jackie Lynch sees ‘tired but wired’ people in her clinic every day, most with energy management issues that are easily fixable. Here she offers solutions to make you feel brighter and more productive
When you’re running low on energy and still have a mountain of things to do, it’s easy to go for the quick fix of a shot of caffeine, a chocolate bar or a sugary drink just to keep you going. But are you making the smartest choice for long-term energy? In my book Va Va Voom: the 10-Day Energy Diet, I explore the different foods that will boost your energy and the energy robbers that can leave you feeling tired and drained.
Here are some of the most common energy errors I see in my nutrition clinic with some simple strategies to help you get your energy back on track.
1. You’re not eating enough protein
- sugar or carb cravings
- lack of muscle tone
- brittle nails
Far too many of us only eat a proper portion of protein once a day and women are often especially guilty of that. It’s easily done if you have some form of cereal or toast in the morning followed by a salad for lunch, but it simply isn’t enough to have a chicken breast or salmon steak in the evening.
We need protein for lots of crucial functions in the body, but it’s particularly important to fill you up and to keep you going during a busy day. Protein plays an essential part in maintaining blood sugar balance because it helps to slow down the release of carbohydrate in the body ensuring more sustained energy. Good sources of protein include meat, fish, eggs, pulses, quinoa, nuts and seeds and eating a portion of protein with every meal and snack will help to balance your blood sugar and avoid those pesky mid-morning and mid-afternoon energy slumps.
You need about a fist-sized portion for a meal e.g. a chicken breast and around a palmful for snacks e.g. eight almonds or 50g of hummus.
2. You follow a low-carb diet
- bloating or wind
- reduced physical performance/running out of steam
- poor immune function
Poor old carbs have had a terrible press with the vogue for low-carb diets, but as the preferred source of rapid energy for the body, carbohydrate is actually a vital source of fuel. This makes a strictly low carb diet a real problem for both mental and physical energy. Our brain is entirely dependent on the glucose found in carbohydrate for energy (unlike the rest of the body it can't use our fat stores as energy) and anyone with a physically demanding job or lifestyle will soon start to struggle on a low carb diet because they’re literally running out of fuel.
All carbs aren’t equal though and the body will quickly burn through sugary foods or refined carbohydrates such as white bread or white rice, leading to a blood sugar spike and crash, and this will leave you back at square one. If you want to achieve sustained energy, it’s best to opt for fibre-rich complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, vegetables and pulses. Protein and complex carbohydrate are actually the dream team when it comes to energy, so aim for a combination of the two with each meal and snack and you’ll soon be cruising through the day.
3. You’re over-reliant on caffeine
- insomnia or disturbed sleep
- a feeling of being ‘wired’
- nervousness or anxiety
Caffeine is a double-edged sword when it comes to energy. There’s no doubt that a dose of caffeine can provide a quick energy boost, and studies have shown that it may also help to enhance athletic performance. However, there can be too much of a good thing and all the benefits start to melt away if you keep topping up with caffeine to keep you going throughout the day.
Caffeine is a powerful stimulant which can disrupt your sleep but there are also other less obvious ways that it can deplete your energy. Excessive levels of caffeine activate the insulin response (insulin removes sugar from the blood) which can lead to a subsequent blood sugar crash and an energy slump. Alcohol and nicotine have a similar insulin-stimulating effect.
Regular caffeine can also block the absorption of plant sources iron in the gut, which will inhibit the production of haemoglobin and the transportation of oxygen which our body cells need to produce energy.
The daily recommended maximum for caffeine is 400mg. A large latte or cappuccino typically contains 200mg, so it’s easy to overdo it. It will vary however with each individual, depending on how effective their liver detoxes.
Keep an eye out for surprising sources of caffeine, it’s not just all about coffee – for example, green tea contains as much caffeine as black tea and if you’re drinking several cups throughout the day, this could be depleting your long-term energy. Energy drinks, colas and even chocolate (dark is usually higher than milk) are all other culprits which will top up your caffeine levels.
4. You’re not moving enough
- lower back pain
- sluggishness or lethargy
It may seem counter-intuitive but moderate exercise when you’re feeling tired can actually perk you up considerably. Exercise improves our circulation, sending oxygen around the body to support energy production in our brain, tissues and muscles. Regular exercise helps to reduce stress levels which can rob us of energy and it improves mental energy by releasing neurochemicals such as serotonin and endorphins, which enhance our mood and motivation. Even regular low impact exercise such as walking can improve energy levels by up to 20 per cent in someone with a sedentary lifestyle.
While this is a popular time of year for signing up to gym memberships, there’s also lots of ‘free’ exercise to be had by making a point of using the stairs or walking up escalators, opting to walk instead of taking the car and making a point of taking a quick walk at lunchtime instead of eating at your workstation.
A 15-minute brisk walk every day can help to relieve sluggishness or lethargy but ideally this should be part of a broader weekly exercise routine. Current guidelines advise at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise like brisk walking or cycling each week.
5. You’re dehydrated
- dry eyes
Our body needs water to support the circulatory system which delivers the nutrients and oxygen around the body so that our cells can produce energy. Just two per cent dehydration can significantly affect our physical performance, reducing strength, speed and stamina. Dehydration will also impair mental energy: when the brain is starved of water, it will result in poor concentration, lack of creativity and confusion.
There isn’t a fixed amount of water that we should be drinking, because it depends on age, build, level of physical activity and the temperature of your environment. Your intake should be enough to stop you feeling thirsty over long periods and to ensure that your urine is a pale straw colour. Drinking plenty of water or herbal teas throughout the day is probably the best way to ensure you’re getting all the fluid that you need, but it’s worth noting that fruit and vegetables contain lots of water which can give you a good hydration boost.
6. You over-rely on alcohol to unwind
- poor quality sleep
- needing the toilet in the middle of the night
- weight gain
If you’re in the habit of unwinding every evening with a glass or two of wine or other alcohol, this could be having a significant impact on your long-term energy levels. While you may feel that alcohol helps you to relax and get to sleep more quickly, it actually has a sedative effect which disrupts your sleep cycles so that you’re likely to wake feeling unrefreshed.
Regular alcohol consumption can also affect your energy levels in other ways: it will deplete B vitamins, which play a vital part in the chain reaction of energy production and the combination of sugar and stimulant in alcohol will disrupt your blood sugar levels, setting you up for a blood sugar crash and an energy slump. Excessive levels of alcohol also keep your liver very busy with the detoxification process which will distract it from the important business of energy metabolism.
Opting for at least three consecutive alcohol-free days each week will dramatically improve the quality of your sleep and free up your liver to get on with all its other many jobs!