Waking up feeling low in energy, after a seemingly good sleep, is the worst. The whole day ahead is a struggle, you reach for more coffee than you'd like, and falling asleep on the bus home is an embarrassing reality.
There is a vast array of reasons for low energy, some of them simple, some of them more concerning, but there are a few main reasons why people experience fatigue.
"Common symptoms of low energy levels are excessive tiredness and general fatigue, feeling cold, lacking motivation, even feeling depressed," Dineamic head dietitian Karen Inge told The Huffington Post Australia.
"Low energy levels can be due to many causes, like overdoing it, stress, lack of sleep, illness. But when fatigue sets in and is not alleviated by a good night's sleep then you need to consider dietary issues."
Common causes of fatigue
- Medical causes -- unrelenting exhaustion may be a sign of nutrient deficiencies, undereating or an underlying illness, such as a thyroid disorder, heart disease or diabetes.
- Lifestyle related causes -- alcohol, drugs or lack of regular exercise can lead to feelings of fatigue.
- Workplace related causes -- workplace stress can lead to feelings of fatigue.
- Emotional concerns and stress -- fatigue is a common symptom of mental health problems, such as depression and grief, and may be accompanied by other signs and symptoms, including irritability and lack of motivation.
From a diet and nutrition point of view, here are five ways you can help increase your energy levels throughout the day.
1. Eat regularly
"All food provides energy or fuel for our bodies. Our brain fuel is glucose and our muscles rely on glycogen (stored carbohydrate) as its main fuel source," Inge said.
"Our bodies can also use fat as an energy source, as it can protein, but the best fuel sources are foods rich in nutritious carbohydrates like grains, fruit, starchy vegetables and legumes (beans and lentils)."
If you're a serial breakfast or lunch skipper, it may be the reason why you're low in energy.
"Firstly, start eating regular meals," Inge said.
"Many people skip meals when they are busy or just grab a coffee for breakfast as they rush out the door, work through lunch and then order takeaway when they get home because they are too tired to cook dinner.
"So, being organised with food shopping and planning meals ahead is a good strategy for having regular meals."
2. Eat healthy whole foods
Poor diet can also contribute to your energy levels, as junk foods are mostly void of the important vitamins and minerals found in fresh whole foods.
"You also need to consider the kinds of foods that you are eating to ensure that they are well balanced and healthy," Inge said.
"A good rule of thumb is to fill half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with grains or starchy vegetables, and the other quarter with lean protein sources like fish, chicken or red meat, eggs or tofu, lentils and beans.
"Make good use of healthy fats as well, using olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocado."
3. Don't skip the low GI carbs
Contrary to what most people believe, carbs are not 'bad' -- you just have to eat the right ones. According to Inge, low carbohydrate intake may explain low energy.
"For a while there some people became carb-phobic and were very concerned that carbs were making us fat," Inge said.
"This view is slowly changing with the emergence again of the ancient grains like quinoa (a pseudo grain), freekeh (young green wheat), farro (first cultivated over 2000 years ago), spelt, buckwheat (another pseudo grain), amaranth and red and black rice.
"These grains have superstar status and have given permission to put nutritious carbs back on the menu. Many of these grains have a nutty flavour and a chewy texture, while others lend themselves to be jazzed up with a wonderful array of flavoursome herbs and spices."
Foods rich in carbs should be distributed fairly evenly throughout the day and preferably with a protein source to keep blood sugar (glucose) levels fairly steady.
However, there are some types of carbs to reduce. In fact, skipping these can actually help sustain your energy levels throughout the day.
"Of course, sugar and sugar sweetened beverages and foods are all high in carbs as well, but a heavy reliance on these non-nutritious foods is not recommended," Inge told HuffPost Australia.
"It is important to include carb-containing foods that have a low or moderate glycemic index and load, which means that they are slowly converted to glucose in the blood stream, giving a more sustained energy supply."
Not sure how to eat the right amount of carbs in the optimal way?
"Foods rich in carbs should be distributed fairly evenly throughout the day and preferably with a protein source to keep blood sugar (glucose) levels fairly steady," Inge said. "A good example would be yoghurt topped with berries, or a whole grain crisp bread spread with peanut butter or avocado."
4. Get tested for nutrient deficiencies (and eat accordingly)
Low energy levels can also be attributed to a nutritional deficiency, the most common one being iron deficiency.
"Women of child-bearing age are at greater risk because of increased iron losses through menstruation," Inge explained.
"Athletes or people who exercise a lot are also at risk, as are those following a low kilojoule diet. People who avoid red meat or who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet are also at increased risk of iron deficiency.
"The richest sources of iron in our diet is liver and kidney followed by red meat, dark meat of chicken and, to a lesser extent, fish. These sources are all well absorbed."
Vegetarian or vegan? There are iron rich plant-based foods you can eat more of.
"Legumes, dark green leafy vegetable and whole grains are also good sources of iron. But to enhance the iron absorption we need to include foods rich in vitamin C at the same time, so having a spinach salad with cherry tomatoes, red capsicum and a lemon juice dressing is a good way to absorb the iron," Inge told HuffPost Australia.
"Be mindful if you are a big tea drinker, because the tannins in most teas will inhibit iron absorption. Herbal infusions are fine, as are tannin-free teas.
"Low vitamin B12 levels can also contribute to fatigue. Good sources are offal, red meat, dairy foods and some fermented foods."
If you suspect you are iron or B12 deficient, see your GP and ask for a blood test. Taking supplements you don't need can be dangerous.
"Many people treat themselves with vitamin and mineral supplements thinking, 'I'm tired so I'll pop an iron pill'. This could be a total waste of time and money, and in fact might be doing more harm than good," Inge said.
"The best advice is to see a medical practitioner and get a blood test to check your nutritional status, in particular your iron levels and vitamin B12.
"Your fatigue could be due to thyroid problems and other medical issues that may go well beyond diet. So it's never a waste of time to get checked out."
5. Avoid overeating
While there is no one food that reduces energy levels per se, we all know what it feels like when we overindulge and sit with an uncomfortable feeling of fullness.
"This results in fatigue and all we want to do is veg out on the couch. What is actually happening here is when we eat, our blood supply is directed to our digestive system and away from our brain and muscles, so we experience this lethargy and fatigue," Inge explained.
"Under normal circumstances we feel fine, but when we overeat, as is often the case at Christmas or other special events, we get this kind of 'dumping syndrome' where we feel exhausted."
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