Updated: Feb 18
When you are feeling sluggish what do you typically reach for to perk you up? Is it an energy drink, a can of soda, or chocolate bar? These foods are loaded with sugar, which gives you a temporary feeling of energy. Often this is fleeting because as sugar levels rise, the body responds by releasing the hormone insulin to bring the sugar levels back down to a normal range. This results in a rapid rise and fall of blood sugar. Often this fall in blood sugar leads to a subsequent crash in energy. This can also lead some people to “chase” energy levels by consuming something sweet every time energy levels start to fall. This is not a good strategy because all of that excess sugar can lead to weight gain and many products that are high in sugar are also low in other important nutrients such as protein, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
Here are some nutrition strategies for beating the 3 pm slump, getting over jet lag, or coping with a poor night’s sleep:
Eat a snack or meal combining both protein and carbohydrates. The protein takes longer for the body to digest and when it is combined with carbohydrates it provides a slower release of sugar (or energy) into the bloodstream. This means that you will have an energy boost that lasts a little longer and is more sustainable. Good options include Greek yogurt and berries, half a tuna sandwich, cheese and crackers, a handful of almond with an apple, or a hardboiled egg and a slice of toast.
Are you up late studying for a test or working on a project? When you are burning the midnight oil it might be good to stick to a lighter dinner. When you eat a large dinner, the body puts a large amount of energy into digestion and this means less energy goes towards concentration. It might also be a good idea to have a meal that is lower in carbohydrates, has a good dose of protein, and plenty of vegetables. A large amount of carbohydrates can cause you to feel groggy and may make it difficult to focus on the task at hand. A good time to have carbohydrates is when you are finished with your project and are ready for bed, because carbohydrates increase the body’s production of the sleep promoting neurotransmitter serotonin. This does not give you permission to eat cookies or cake before bed, which can cause the excess sugar to be stored as fat. Instead, have a small snack before bed such as a glass of milk, yogurt and fruit, or a slice of toast with peanut butter.
Have a large glass of water. It is possible that your lack of energy is due to dehydration. Dehydration can cause fatigue because when your body is lacking fluid it has to work harder to maintain vital functions including transporting nutrients in the blood, digestion, and getting rid of waste products via the kidneys. When you are thirsty you are already dehydrated. Make sure you are drinking water throughout the day and check that your urine is light colored. The best way to stay hydrated is to drink water and limit sugary beverages, sports drinks, and coffee.
Caffeine can definitely provide an energy boost as caffeine is a natural stimulant. It is important to be cautious with caffeine. Too much can leave you jittery and anxious. Most people drink coffee when they want an energy boost and add sugar to their coffee or drink specialty coffee drinks such as flavored lattes. The sugar in the flavored coffee drink will definitely help you get a bolt of energy, but it might be short-lived. Another important thing to consider is what time of day you are drinking caffeine. It is generally recommended to stop drinking caffeine at least 6 hours prior to bedtime. Caffeine can have a negative impact on sleep, which can lead to a vicious cycle of poor sleep and reaching for caffeine to keep you awake during the day. Studies show that caffeine can negatively affect REM sleep so even if can sleep after drinking coffee at night, you probably should not.
Nutrient deficiencies can cause fatigue. If you have unexplainable fatigue, consider doing a blood test for vitamin B12, folate, and iron. These nutrients are vital for the formation of red blood cells, which transport much needed oxygen to the working muscles. Symptoms of a deficiency in these nutrients include the feeling of fatigue despite getting enough sleep and becoming short of breath doing simple tasks.
Food allergies may be a hidden cause of fatigue. If you feel fatigue intensifies after a meal it might be a sign of a food allergy or intolerance. Generally this is associated with an overwhelming sense of fatigue after a meal and should not be confused with normal mild post-meal drowsiness, especially after a large meal. In some cases the symptoms can be severe enough to cause dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting. Food allergy testing can be expensive and not always accurate. Consider working with a dietitian and initiating a food elimination protocol if you suspect food allergies.
Get enough sleep! This might seem like common sense, but the major cause of fatigue is lack of sleep or poor quality sleep. Consider consuming foods that contain the sleep promoting hormone melatonin such as tomatoes, olives, walnuts, and milk with dinner or as a snack before bed. Remember, most people need 7-8 hours of sleep.
Take a walk! No wonder you are feeling tired and fatigued if you are sitting for long periods of time staring at your computer screen during work. This can put a lot of strain on your eyes and cause headaches and also be mentally draining. It is best if you can take a break every 30-60 minutes to get up and move. Doing something that increases your heart rate is recommended to get the blood flowing. Here are a few ides: 60 jumping jacks, 5-10 pull-ups (get a pull up bar for your office), 30 kettlebell swings or 10 kettlebell lunges (this is another option to keep at the office), a 5-10 minute walk, going up and down the stairs a few times, 15 jumping squats, or 15-20 pushups. The other benefit to this approach is that you get small bursts of activity throughout the day, which can be very beneficial to our metabolism and increase energy and mood.
Life happens and sometimes poor sleep happens. Lack of sleep can increase the likelihood of energy crashes throughout the day and often this is exacerbated by the increased desire to consume sugary foods. The best strategy is to have meals and snacks ready to go. Make sure you are eating every 2-4 hours and consume a balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat at these meals and snacks. This should help keep your blood sugars stable. Avoid consuming excess carbohydrate, which can cause energy crashes.
Take a power nap. If you are able to do so (and not get in trouble with the boss), take a quick 10 minute nap break. This nap needs to be fairly short. Longer naps can actually cause people to feel more tired, especially if they wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle. A short nap can help with increased energy and feeling refreshed.