Carol Heffernan, a 43-year-old marketing writer, regularly felt worn out from her busy life of working, shuttling her two young kids to school and play dates, and taking care of housework. But when COVID-19 hit and the kids were suddenly at home all day, learning remotely, she noticed that her run-of-the-mill weariness quickly turned into full-on exhaustion.
“All the extra responsibility and the mental load – it just added up,” she says. “I felt grumpy and tired – and it wasn’t due to lack of sleep.”
Heffernan didn’t have any time in the day to exercise off her stress. She was short on energy, and she started becoming short with her kids. “After I put them to bed at 8pm, I would just crash on the couch,” she says.
If there’s one thing many of us have in common, it’s that we’re tired. In fact, lethargy is so pervasive that it’s one of the issues people ask their doctors about the most. Doctors even have a name for it: ‘tired all the time’, or TATT for short. The solution isn’t always as simple as getting more sleep; nearly a quarter of people who get seven or more hours of rest a night report they still wake up feeling tired most days of the week.
Here are eight reasons why your energy might be low – and what you can do to bring it back.
1. YOU SPEND TOO MUCH TIME ON THE COUCH
When you’re feeling sluggish, it can be tempting to plop down and binge-watch TV. But doing something active will actually give you more energy, not consume the little that you have. In fact, researchers at the University of Georgia found that just ten minutes of low- or moderate-intensity exercise gave study participants a noticeable energy boost.
Exercise also works its magic at the cellular level: the mitochondria (the parts of your cells that provide energy to your muscles) actually grow more powerful and numerous after aerobic exercise, providing a continuous source of increased energy.
2. YOU’RE PUSHING YOURSELF TOO HARD
People who feel overcommitted – whether from volunteering for one too many causes or shouldering too much at work or at home – often try to squeeze in more tasks. But it might be wiser to take a break. “When it comes to optimising energy over the long haul, it’s about getting into a rhythm of periods of exertion and rest,” says Dane Jensen, CEO of Third Factor, an organisation that helps companies’ employees perform better under pressure. “In fact, to stay energised over the course of the day, you need a 15- to 20-minute break every 90 minutes.”
Not all downtime is equal: a 2016 study looked at office workers in South Korea and found that those who looked at their phones during breaks were significantly less recharged than those who went for a walk or chatted with friends. Jensen suggests choosing breaks from work that balance out what’s taxing you. If you’ve been working at a computer take a walk outside. If you’ve been doing spring cleaning, sit down and call a friend.
Jensen also suggests considering four categories of breaks, based on how they can benefit you: physical (walking or stretching); cognitive (crossword puzzles or Sudoku); emotional (phoning a loved one); and spiritual (walking in the woods or practising a religion).
3. YOU’RE ANXIOUS
Anxiety is draining. When you’re distressed, your body is on high alert and produces adrenaline. Your muscles might tighten up, and your brain shifts into overdrive to try to work through all possible scenarios. That all takes energy – and will leave you feeling tired.
And, the pile-up of global crises – natural disasters, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine being the most notable – is having a measurable effect on many people’s mental health. One study published in the British Journal Of Psychology found that participants who watched a negative news bulletin were more likely to feel anxious or sad than those who watched a neutral or positive one – and then they felt worse about their personal problems.
One antidote to all the bad news is cultivating your friendships. Scientists have long known that socialising decreases the risk of developing mental-health issues like depression, and avoiding loneliness also lowers stress-hormone levels in your body.
Dr Vincent Agyapong, a professor of psychiatry and global mental health, says that his research has demonstrated that nurturing relationships is a mood booster. “Maintaining social contacts is one of the ways to maintain your mental health,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be face to face – it can be via social media, telephone call or video conference.”
All that said, if you think you might have clinical levels of anxiety – for example, if you’re having panic attacks or completely avoiding doing everyday tasks – speak to your doctor about therapy or medication.
4. YOU’RE LOW ON VITAMINS
Fatigue is often connected to not having enough of two key nutrients, says Dr Lin: iron and B vitamins. When you don’t get enough iron in your diet, it can lead to iron-deficiency anaemia, which means your body doesn’t produce enough healthy red blood cells.
“When there are not enough red blood cells around, less oxygen gets carried to the cells to allow them to generate energy, which causes fatigue,” says Dr Lin.
Having a B-vitamin deficiency, especially B12, also affects energy levels, since vitamin B12 is another key to creating enough red blood cells. Since iron and vitamin B are commonly absorbed from red meat and shellfish, people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet are at more risk.
But anaemia can also occur during pregnancy or stem from gastro-intestinal problems, such as ulcers or Crohn’s disease. These and other less common vitamin and mineral deficiencies can all be identified with a blood test and treated with supplements and a change in diet. Dr Lin warns, however, that supplements and drinks that are advertised as energy enhancers can be dangerous.
“A lot of those ‘energy’ supplements are laced with caffeine, ginseng or other stimulants at a high dose,” she says. She also cautions that they can cause serious side effects, like heart palpitations, insomnia and anxiety.
5. YOU’RE DEPRESSED
If you’re feeling excessively fatigued – dragging yourself through the normal tasks of daily living, or are unable to complete them – it could be a sign that you’ve slipped into depression.
Some people are genetically predisposed to the condition, and others develop it as a result of difficult circumstances; the proportion of people experiencing psychological distress in Australia, for example, rose to 12.5 per cent in October 2021, the highest level recorded since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s expected that so much fear and uncertainty will increase people’s levels of stress, anxiety and depression,” says Dr Agyapong.
“With how long the pandemic is going on, it’s becoming pathological for a lot of people.”
Other symptoms of depression include loss of appetite and irritability. If you’re feeling tired all the time and suspect depression might be to blame, ask your doctor for a mental-health screening. Talk therapy can help, as can antidepressants.
6. YOU’RE EATING AN UNBALANCED DIET
We often think about how our diet affects our weight, but what you eat has a large effect on your energy levels, too. When your body digests food, it turns it into glucose, which is then sent by way of your blood to all of your muscles and organs, including your brain. Our blood sugar naturally fluctuates during this process, and when it’s low, we can feel sluggish.
A simple way to keep your blood sugar consistent is to eat regularly. “If you go more than several hours without a meal or snack, that’s probably too long of a stretch,” says dietitian Cara Harbstreet.
Another common error, Harbstreet says, is eating too many simple carbohydrates – juice, chocolate bars or white bread. Those can lead to an increase in blood sugar, prompting your body to produce insulin, which then makes your blood sugar drop.
“You get an energy spike and then you come crashing down and eat more of the same kinds of foods,” she explains. “And that cycle can repeat indefinitely.”
Instead, reach for complex carbs – like whole grains and non-starchy vegetables – which are more slowly digested than simple carbs, giving you a steady stream of energy. To make sure you’re getting enough nutrients to fuel your body, Harbstreet recommends trying to eat three food groups at every meal and at least two at snack time.
7. YOU’RE NOT BREATHING WELL AT NIGHT
If you’ve been unusually tired for more than a month, ask your doctor if an underlying problem could be behind it. One common culprit is sleep apnoea, a condition that causes breathing to start and stop throughout the night.
According to an Australian Institute Of Health And Welfare report, Sleep-related Breathing Disorders With A Focus On Obstructive Sleep Apnoea, sleep apnoea affects 6.7 per 1000 Australian adults – and those numbers are on the rise, likely because of growing rates of obesity.
Since sleep apnoea causes sufferers to rouse multiple times a night to keep breathing – often without knowing it – they don’t get enough deep sleep. The condition, which often comes with daytime exhaustion and nighttime snoring, can also lead to other issues, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. If diagnosed, sleep apnoea can be treated with a machine that pushes pressurised air into your nose or mouth during the night to make sure your airways stay open.
8. YOUR THYROID IS STRAINED
Another underlying problem to watch out for is hypothyroidism, which affects about five per cent of the population and almost always includes tiredness as a symptom. The condition is caused when your thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland inside your neck, produces too few hormones.
“Thyroid hormones control your metabolism, which is like the engine in your car,” says Dr Lin. “When your engine runs too low, the car drives too slowly.” Along with fatigue, hypothyroidism may also result in weight gain, slow movement and speech, and sensitivity to cold. The condition is most common in women over 60 and can be treated by taking a medication that contains either natural or synthetic thyroid chemicals.
A few weeks after her fatigue set in, Heffernan knew she needed to do something to feel better. Finally, one day she decided to drop everything and go for a walk – something she hadn’t done since the pandemic began.
“I just wanted to be by myself,” she says. “I needed a break.” When she returned, she felt recharged and decided to make a habit of it.
“Going for a 45-minute walk really feeds me, spiritually, emotionally and physically,” she says. I have something to look forward to every afternoon. I’m in a better mood. And after putting the kids to bed, I have the energy to stay up, talk to my husband and have some more time for myself.”
60-Second Fixes: How to boost your energy in a minute or less
1. Drink peppermint tea
According to researchers, people who drink peppermint tea are more alert and complete mental tasks faster.
2. Open the blinds
Exposing yourself to natural sunlight, especially when you wake up, can help suppress melatonin, the chemical in your body that makes you sleepy.
3. Take deep breaths
When you’re stressed, it’s natural to breathe shallowly, which can decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches your cells. To counteract that, try breathing in through your nose for four seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, then slowly exhaling for four seconds.
4. Chew gum
Though it’s not exactly clear why, numerous studies have shown that chewing (sugar-free) gum increases alertness. Even before science confirmed it, during WWI, American soldiers were issued gum to help them focus.
5. Sing a song
Listening to music can increase levels of happy chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin – and belting out lyrics makes you breathe deeper and take in more oxygen, boosting your energy.