You eat healthy, mind your calories, make sure to get exercise and plenty of sleep, and sometimes even perk yourself up with a little shot of caffeine…but despite all these efforts, you still feel tired or sluggish. Sound familiar? It’s possible your seemingly healthy habits may actually be working against you!
With an ocean of health advice out there—some confusing, some conflicting, and some that’s outright false—it can be hard to find the perfect balance to keep you healthy, rested, and energized. Here are some common (yet sneaky) ways good advice can wrong and sap your energy
Energy Sink #1: Sleeping In
Tragically, your attempt to “catch up” on rest during the weekend may make you feel even more tired. This is because oversleeping throws off the part of your brain that controls your body’s daily cycle. Your “circadian pacemaker,” which is in the hypothalamus, sends chemical signals to your body to keep all the cells on the same daily clock and regulate energy accordingly. When you oversleep, you disrupt that biological clock and it confuses the cells, creating a sense of fatigue.
Alarmingly, regular oversleeping may put you at risk of depression, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. A Harvard-based Nurses’ Health study found that women who slept 9 to 11 hours a night developed memory problems compared to those who slept for 7 to 8 hours a night. Another study also links both excessive and insufficient amounts of sleep to premature deaths from cardiovascular diseases and other diseases.
COURSE CORRECTION: The CDC recommends that adults ages 18 and up sleep 7 to 9 hours a day. To get the most out of every night’s sleep, your best bet is consistency: Hitting the hay and waking up on the same schedule every day of the week will help support a high-functioning circadian rhythm so you feel less of a need to sleep in.
Energy Sink #2: Morning Strength Training
Can’t seem to give your all in your AM lifting sessions? Here’s what might be going on:
To start, joints and muscles are tighter in the morning, after having been immobile during sleep. This limits your stability and range of motion and simply makes it harder to achieve your maximum workout potential.
On a deeper level, morning strength training may clash with the natural rhythms of your muscle-building hormones. In the morning, the body wakes up in a catabolic state with heightened levels of cortisol. One of cortisol’s primary functions is to raise blood sugar, which it does by breaking down muscle proteins and fats—the most essential fuels for building strength! This creates a fierce uphill battle for your protein-hungry muscles during strength or resistance training.
Later in the day, however, the body reaches an anabolic state, higher in hormones like testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin. These hormones work together to repair tissue and control the metabolism of sugars and fats. The body is best primed at this time to build muscle and offer up the sustained energy required to do it.
COURSE CORRECTION: If you just can’t quit your AM routine, consider aerobic and cardio exercise in the morning, to avoid overtaxing muscles that aren’t metabolically prepared for heavy resistance. Start gently, and always stretch first, with a focus on mobilizing your spine and major joints. If morning strength training is a must, build up to your maximum weights very gradually. And don’t forget to eat a protein-rich breakfast first, to ensure your muscles have the fuel they need and that you don’t suffer a surprise glucose crash during your workout.
Energy Sink #3: Aggressively Cutting Carbs or Fats
Many of us have fallen prey to the idea that eliminating carbohydrates or fats from our diet (depending on which extreme diet philosophy you may subscribe to) will help us lose weight faster. Alas, this is an unsustainable tactic for achieving fitness goals—and a quick path to exhaustion.
When you exercise, your body derives energy from glycogen stores, an energy surplus located in muscle and liver cells. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains, lentils, fruits, or sweet potatoes are essential for replenishing those stores. These foods also make you feel fuller, longer, so you don’t fall prey to empty-calorie snacking—which can result in an energy crash later. Cutting out Wonderbread and candy bars is one thing, but there are some carbs your body really needs.
Similarly, “good” fats like nuts, fish, and avocados are equally important sources of fuel for the body. Unlike saturated fats, these healthful fats support cell function and structure, muscle building, and heart health. And because unsaturated fats slow digestion, eating them will also help you feel fuller for longer—which spells sustained energy levels throughout the day.
COURSE CORRECTION: It’s all about balance. One exceptionally well-balanced approach to eating is the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on fruits and veggies, whole grains, seafood, nuts and legumes, and olive oil. Notably, it doesn’t outright ban meat or dairy, emphasizing moderation instead, making you much more likely to stick with this approach—and gain more of its benefits—over time.
Energy Sink #4: Hyperfocusing on Low-Calorie Foods
You may think you’re making the healthier choice by making a low daily calorie count your goal, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. But doing so could be depleting your energy. A calorie is a unit of measurement use to estimate how much energy a food will provide your body to keep you moving through the day. The bulk of this fuel is spent on basic functions like heartbeat, breathing, and neurological function. And, of course, you’ll need even more to fuel exercise.
Regularly depriving your body of calories can actually depress your metabolism and trigger hormonal imbalances. These effects can leave you feeling drained and over time lead to health issues like anemia, malnutrition, immunodeficiency, and more. Over-cutting calories in your meals can also increase inter-meal cravings, leading to excessive snacking or overindulging in the next meal—which is sure to make you feel sluggish.
COURSE CORRECTION: In reality, low-calorie foods are often qualified as such because they’re devoid of substance (and therefore nutrition) or because they’re packed with so many artificial sugar and fat substitutes that they barely qualify as food! Focus on the quality of calories over their quantity.
For example, the same number of calories exists in a bowl of Froot Loops as a serving of avocado, which is fiber-rich, supports your gut biome, and is a heart health superstar. The point being, not all calories are equal, so simply focusing on driving that number down may also deprive you of essential, energy-supporting nutrition.
Energy Sink #5: Heavy Coffee Consumption
Starting your morning with a cup o’ joe is fine. In fact, drinking up to four 8 oz. cups of brewed coffee is considered moderate by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But drinking more than 4 cups—which is the norm for many—can seriously disrupt your sleep/wake cycle, which is critical for maintaining energy during waking hours. Caffeine blocks adenosine, a chemical in the central nervous system that regulates the sleep/wake cycle, quickly leading to tiredness.
In addition, coffee is a diuretic (meaning it stimulates urination), so large quantities may increase your risk of dehydration. This fluid loss can affect the cardiovascular system’s function in regulating blood pressure and blood flow. Dehydration combined with the effects of caffeine can easily lead to heart rate and blood pressure irregularities, resulting in feelings of fatigue and sluggishness—or worse.
Adding sugar to your coffee ramps up the jolt/crash cycle even more. The body processes sugar much faster than caffeine, triggering an energy slump that even the caffeine can’t keep up with.
COURSE CORRECTION: Dial it back, man! If you’re an all-day coffee drinker, try weaning yourself off the juice by replacing some cups with decaf. Even better, replace some or all of your coffee intake with green tea, which has the added benefit of containing L-theanine, an amino acid that promotes a state of calm alertness…which is probably what you’re really looking for in your caffeine fix anyway.