6 ways to improve energy and beat burnout before it takes hold
Last weekend I was watching a film about how time is the new currency. The characters worked for time, not money, and ‘wealth’ was measured by how much time was on their personal clock. It wasn’t the best film I’ve ever seen(!), but it got me thinking. Is energy the currency of today?
People want more energy all the time, people will pay for solutions promising more energy, and low energy is probably the most common symptom I see in my clinic. People today are energy poor.
Luckily, we can support our energy with some simple nutrition and lifestyle changes. I’m not saying this is the solution - low energy is multifactorial and there may be some underlying reasons driving it. But it’s a great place to start to give the body what it needs.
1. Include crucial nutrients needed for energy production
Energy is made in the body via the cells, in what are called the ‘mitochondria’. These are the energy powerhouses of our cells. For the energy-making process to function optimally certain nutrients are required. Therefore we can support the body by giving it enough of these nutrients in our diets (I don’t recommend supplementing without checking with a health professional, especially if you're on medications). Key nutrients include:
- B vitamins: from meat, seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, avocado, mushrooms, pulses. Vegans need to be especially cautious about B12 as it only naturally occurs in animal products (consult a Doctor or health practitioner for supplementation advice).
- Magnesium: from dark green leafy vegetables, cashews, almonds, wholegrains, pumpkin seeds.
- Iron: from meat, spinach, apricots, lentils. (Always consult a Doctor to test your iron levels before supplementing, do not self-prescribe it as too much iron is dangerous).
We can also protect the mitochondria from cellular damage by ensuring to eat lots of coloured fruit and vegetables, which will contain antioxidants. Keep sugar low as well to keep the powerhouses in tip top form.
2. Eat nutritionally balanced meals
One of the most common reasons I see in clients for energy slumps in the afternoon is not eating balanced meals during the day or going too long between meals. Hanger, anyone? This is when we get so hungry that we feel really irritated and ravenous to eat something - if anyone gets in our way, beware! We don’t want to be getting to this point - this is only going to set us on an energy roller coaster.
Our meals need to be made up of the three macronutrients - carbohydrates, fats, and protein. But the mistakes many people make is either to go low carb, low fat, or not have a source of protein. When it comes to stress and burnout, we need balanced meals with all three to sustain us. I’m not saying low carb is ‘bad’, but it is very context-dependent and generally we need a source of carbohydrates for energy. We do, however, want the right sources. We want to steer away from white, refined carbs and more towards whole grain varieties or root vegetables like sweet potato. These will give a nice steady and even supply of energy rather than a big bang that will only see you crashing an hour or two later.
For protein, most of us need a source in every meal. This could be meat or fish, or it could be nuts, seeds, pulses or beans. For fats, we want good quality fats such as avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds. It’s then the combination of all three of these macronutrients that keeps us feeling satiated and gives us energy to go about our day.
3. Avoid energy-sucking foods
As well as adding in energy-giving foods, we can also take out energy-sucking foods. Foods such as junk and processed foods tend to be very low in nutrients and therefore won’t be very energy-giving. The most common culprits are ready meals, cereals, snack bars, packaged cakes and biscuits, crisps, processed breads, and packaged snack foods.
Focus instead on adding in lots of whole fresh foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, plain meats and fish, eggs, pulses, beans, nuts and seeds. The odd packaged food then won’t deplete your energy, but if you’re relying on processed foods as your staple diet, then chances are you won’t be buzzing with energy.
Another common scenario I see in my clinic is people who either don’t drink enough water or who are drinking a lot of caffeine, fizzy drinks, or alcohol. Everything in our body needs water - our cells, our brain, our blood and circulation, our detoxification, our digestion. So if we’re not hydrating enough, then these processes may slow down.
Although caffeine is a liquid, it can be dehydrating so try not to guzzle it all day long. Fizzy drinks will set you back on that blood sugar roller coaster so won’t be contributing to your energy levels. Alcohol is also dehydrating, but more than that it can affect your vitamins status in excess, which then affects energy production. It can also be a burden on your liver which then needs to process it, taking up precious energy!
5. Optimise sleep
When it comes to having enough energy and avoiding burnout, sleep is right up there at the top of things to do. You don’t need me to tell you that! But it can be hard to actually get enough sleep these days - between devices, lights, kids, work problems, all keeping us from getting sufficient shut-eye. There are some tricks you can implement though to encourage sleep.
Refrain from using devices in the evening as the blue light can suppress our sleep hormone, don’t read the news or social media in bed as you’ll wind up thinking about it, and opt for a cool and dark bedroom which encourages the body to relax. Diet also plays a role in sleep, especially good blood sugar management. Go back to tips two and three in this article!
6. Move your body - but not to extremes!
When you feel lethargic or stagnant, one of the best solutions is to go for a nice walk outside to wake up your brain cells! However, when it comes to energy and burnout, we do want to be a bit careful about the type of exercise we do. Extreme or excess cardio or HIIT is unlikely to be helpful.
I typically see two types of clients in my clinic - one has energy levels on the floor struggling to get out of bed in the morning and the other is the wired kind that is always running around ‘doing’ and heading for burnout. In both of these, we want to be cautious not to overdo exercise. If you don’t have the energy to get going in the first place, then pushing yourself hard in a workout is only going to tax your body further when it really needs to rest and recuperate. If you’re super stressed but want to pound out your stress in a HIIT class, you might feel better for it but this kind of exercise can increase your stress hormones, and if these are already elevated, you may be better off doing a slower form of movement.
Exercise is great for energy and we don’t want too little, but equally we need to look at the context and work with where the body/person is at. Exercise should make you feel rejuvenated, not exhausted.
What to look at if you have persistent low energy
If you persistently have low energy, it is important to get this checked by a professional. Make an appointment with your GP to check this out and ask them about things like thyroid, iron, and vitamin D levels.
You could also consider seeing a nutrition professional to optimise your nutrition and make sure you’re getting a well-balanced diet with everything needed for energy. They can also dig deeper into things like hormonal and digestive health.
Important: Always check with your Doctor before making any big changes to your diet or exercise regime. Medications can interact with foods and supplements so it’s crucial to make sure you’re safe.