Each of us comes into this world endowed with a fundamental ‘energy’. This energy operates as a kind of bank account and supplies us with the power to function, grow, heal and regenerate ourselves daily.
We are designed, however, to supplement this original endowment of energy with what we generate from eating, drinking, breathing, sleeping, working, playing, learning and interacting (relationships). Each day we make withdrawals and deposits; we invest or deplete. And when the balance of the scales tips in the direction of us using more than we put back in, we begin to live in the red, with the potential of falling further and further behind.
To keep the currency analogy going, we are then forced to dip into our savings. When we continuously withdraw from our savings account, alarm bells can begin to sound, telling us that our survival is being challenged. These alarms present to us as symptoms in the body, often of the type that don’t initially lead us to stay home from work … so we soldier on and often do nothing about them. Or the medicating—rather than the resolving—of these symptoms begins.
For example, if you get a headache every afternoon at 3pm, it is not a deficiency of painkillers that has led to the headache, yet many people treat the headache as if it is due to such a deficiency. Some of the symptoms of dipping into our energy savings accounts include fatigue, low mood, anxious feelings, apathy, unrefreshed sleep or insomnia, brain fog, lowered resistance to infections, stiffness, digestive system problems, “unexplained” changes in body fat levels, and signs of rapid ageing. These are just some of the ways our body might choose to let us know that we are physically, mentally and/or emotionally exhausted. So, what are some common factors that may lead us to live in the red when it comes to our energy and what can we do about them?
1. Stress hormones
Whether from the overconsumption of caffeine or living in a way that is perceived to be full of pressure and urgency, many people are churning out stress hormones on a daily basis. Adrenaline, our short term stress hormone, affects our blood sugar levels, which can cause spikes and drops in our energy and have us hunting for quick sources of energy such as more caffeine or ultra-processed carbohydrate-rich foods full of sugar (thus continuing the cycle of living off stimulants). If stress continues, the body may begin to produce more of your long term stress hormone cortisol and when cortisol levels fall outside their ideal range, it can wreak havoc on our energy. If you feel as though stress could be behind your fatigue, take steps towards calming down your nervous system. You may like to embrace a restorative practice, commit to regular diaphgramatic breathing, explore your emotional landscape and consider your perceptions of pressure and urgency.
2. “Leaky” gut
In a healthy gut, only the tiny nutrients (vitamins and minerals) diffuse (move) or are transported across the gut wall into the blood, and this is the remarkable process through which we are nourished and stay alive. However, the cells that line the gut can come apart, like a row of bricks with gaps between them. This is also how our gut is when we are born. When food travels through a gut with good cell-lining integrity, it can only go straight ahead and only the nutrients are absorbed. However, if it travels through a gut in which the cells have come apart, it may go straight ahead or it may move out of the gut and into the blood. Fragments of food are not intended to enter the blood. Nutrients — the vitamins and minerals from food — are. So, if fragments of food enter the bloodstream, the immune system, which protects you from infection, thinks that the food fragment is a germ and it mounts an immune response against it. This is one way adults develop food sensitivities, and is, I believe, a process that contributes to exhaustion in some people.
3. Insufficient nourishment
There is nothing in the world that can replace a nutritious way of eating. For some, food is either about losing or maintaining a preferred body weight, for others it’s about eating the most convenient thing to squeeze into a busy day. Yet, when we eat in a way that focuses on nourishment, our body thrives. Nourishment means whole, real foods as close as they come to nature. It means prioritising vegetables, particularly leafy greens and feeding our body with the nutrients it needs to drive the millions of biochemical processes in our body (many of which lead to energy).
4. Not enough rest
We can’t fight our biology–our body needs rest. If you’re on the go 24/7, you’re going to find yourself exhausted after a while. If you add to that poor quality sleep, either because you can’t seem to sleep very well or because you don’t prioritise the need for 7-9 hours sleep per night, it’s just going to compound the situation. You might feel like you don’t have enough time to slow down but actually, the act of slowing down helps you to feel as though you have more time – you create a sense of more spaciousness. You will notice a significant difference to your energy if you build sufficient rest time into your routine.
Some people don’t get enough movement in their days while others overdo it. Either scenario can lead to sluggish energy. Our body needs movement or we start to lose our muscles and joints can become stiff and sore. Yet exercise is actually a stress on the body (some of which is eustress) but we can do too much of it. Be guided by how your body feels during and after exercise –if you come away feeling absolutely exhausted, you’ve gone too far. You want to feel energised afterwards. And don’t discount incidental exercise –parking a little further away so you have further to walk, carrying your groceries in a basket rather than a trolley, taking the stairs instead of the lift. It all adds up. Remember also to get up from your desk and walk around at least once an hour for a few minutes. Sitting for long periods of time can also drain our energy.
6. Low iron
Iron deficiency is still the most common nutritional deficiency in the Western world. In Australia and New Zealand, 20 to 30 per cent of women of child-bearing age are iron deficient. There are so many consequences to this and fatigue is just the beginning. Low iron levels can be caused by multiple factors. Poor dietary iron intake, poor absorption due to digestive insufficiencies or too many competing factors blocking the absorption of iron. For example, calcium and iron compete for absorption and calcium always wins, as it is a bigger structure. So if you only eat iron-rich foods at the same meal as calcium-rich foods, then you will absorb very little iron from that meal. Another reason for low iron levels can be blood loss; most commonly from long-term, heavy menstruation. The flipside of this however, is that some people accumulate iron and store too much of it so it is wise to see your GP and have an ‘iron studies’ blood test to know if you are deficient or not.
7. Busy mind
Having too many tabs open in our brain can put a drain on our energy. As can having a perception that everything is urgent and putting immense pressure on ourselves to do it all to the highest standard. If your mind is running at a million miles an hour, your body is likely struggling to keep up. Try to close tabs regularly –this means completing those little tasks that sit in the back of your mind and nag at you. Also explore your perception of pressure and urgency. An inbox overflowing with emails might feel urgent, but in reality, there will be many correspondences in it that don’t require your immediate attention. Look at what you expect yourself to do within a day and ask for support. There are often people just waiting on the sidelines to help us out if we only ask them! Or we can remind ourselves that others won’t think badly of us if we don’t get it all done.