Updated May 19, 2022
By David H. Rahm, M.D.
Q: I often feel tired and my energy is drained by mid-day. Is there anything I can do to boost my energy levels naturally without having to resort to drinking a Red Bull every afternoon?
As you indicated, energy drinks are not a good solution. Due to their high caffeine content, energy drinks can mask the symptoms of fatigue and promote dehydration. Plus, these drinks are often loaded with sugar.
The good news is you can naturally elevate your energy levels by adopting a number of healthy habits, “fueling” your body with the right nutrients and supplementing with a few vitamins & minerals. I explain in greater detail below.
Keep in mind, that if a lack of energy persists, it’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor. Fatigue may indicate that you have thyroid dysfunction or anemia. A routine blood test can verify if one of these conditions is causing a lack of vim and vigor in your step.
Lifestyle Habits to Increase Energy
Changing habits can be a challenge but here are a few that will not only help you feel energetic but will improve your overall health and well-being.
Obtain Adequate Sleep. This seems like stating the obvious, but if you’re up late watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and rise early for work, it’s not surprising that you feel tired the next day. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. But, recent Gallup polls show that two in five Americans are getting fewer than 7 hours of sleep on average. While there’s no magic number, getting a good night’s sleep goes a long way toward feeling energetic the following day.
Drink More Water. You may be surprised to learn that the most common cause of fatigue is dehydration (it’s also the #1 cause of constipation, the most common digestive complaint, not to mention bad for your skin and kidneys). With less fluid, blood volume drops and your body must work harder to supply oxygen to cells, causing fatigue. Don’t let your thirst be your guide. Aim to drink 6 to 8 glasses of water daily.
Watch Caffeine Intake. Drinking a cup of coffee is a great way to increase mental alertness and get you through a busy afternoon. But, if you’re drinking soft drinks, coffee or energy drinks all day long, the extra caffeine can cause insomnia at night. Stop drinking caffeinated beverages by early afternoon. Switch it up by having a cup of green tea which has a quarter of the caffeine content. Compounds in green tea called catechins naturally boost central nervous system activity to increase energy levels and fight fatigue. Be aware of what beverages, foods and medications contain caffeine. Refer to CSPI’s Caffeine Content of Food & Drugs.
Don’t Skip Breakfast. The name says it all – breakfast provides a meal after a nightlong fast. If you skip this important meal, you won’t have the fuel necessary to get through the morning.
Eat Smaller Meals. A large meal requires more work for your body to digest the food, leaving you feeling zapped for energy. Eat a smaller meal at lunchtime (around 400 to 500 calories) and you won’t find yourself reaching for an afternoon pick-me-up.
Limit Alcohol Intake. A glass of wine or cocktail at dinner may initially help you to fall asleep. But, alcohol interferes with deep sleep (REM sleep) so you’re not getting the rest you think you are. Studies show that alcohol disrupts women’s sleep more than men. By cutting down on alcohol before bedtime, you’ll sleep better and feel more refreshed in the morning.
Quit Smoking. As if the health consequences of smoking are not enough, here’s another reason to kick the habit: smoking saps your energy levels. The nicotine acts as a stimulant and can make falling asleep harder. Smoking also disrupts circadian clock function in the lungs and brain, leading to a restless night. Whether it’s the nicotine patch, e-cigarettes or a smoking cessation program, quit now and enjoy better health and increased energy.
Exercise Daily. Sitting at your desktop for hours can make you drowsy. While it may seem counterintuitive, increasing physical activity even when you’re tired can help you feel energized. Even if it’s a trip around the office complex, a short walk will perk you up. That’s because exercising causes the body to release modest amounts of the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. Embrace a regular workout program and you’ll fall asleep faster, sleep better and wake up feeling more refreshed.
Reduce Stress. Balancing the demands of work and family and handling the pressure to make ends meet, causes a lot of stress. These ongoing emotional stressors take a toll on our health and energy levels. Take time out to add balance to your life. Try to disengage yourself from those who sap their energy from you. Scale back on the hours you work or change jobs if the stress is not worth it.
Foods to Increase Energy
By eating a healthy diet, you reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. Importantly, you fuel your body with the nutrients it needs to work at an optimal level. The result is that you’ll not only feel great but energized too.
What constitutes a healthy diet? A pattern of eating that includes mostly plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains) along with some lean protein (fish, chicken, nuts, legumes) and unsaturated fats (olive oil, flax seed oil, fish oil).
Choose Complex Carbs. It’s tempting to reach for a candy bar or chips late in the afternoon when you’re feeling an energy slump. While these choices may give you an initial burst of energy, you’ll be just as tired in about an hour. This occurs because high-glycemic index foods cause a rapid rise and then a big drop in blood sugar. The result is that you feel sluggish.
A better approach is to eat foods that gradually raise blood sugar levels (low glycemic index foods) and sustain it over a period of time. Known as complex carbohydrates, these foods include vegetables, most fruits, whole grains and legumes.
Protein & Fat Keep You Satisfied. Unlike carbohydrates, proteins and fats have a negligible impact on blood sugar levels. The combination of protein and a complex carbohydrate with a bit of unsaturated fat increases your blood glucose in a sustained way. The result is that you don’t have peaks and valleys in your energy level.
Some great snacks that will increase your energy levels naturally include:
- Veggies with hummus or tabouli
- Apple or banana with peanut butter
- Piece of fruit with nuts
- Non-fat, plain Greek yogurt & fresh fruit
- Hardboiled egg
- Handful of nuts & raisins
- Green smoothie with protein powder
Vitamins & Supplements to Increase Energy
While adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle is key to sustaining your energy levels, you can take a number of supplements to amplify your efforts. Supplements can affect metabolism, act as stimulants or help the body better adapt to stressful conditions.
The B-Complex. The vitamin B family, including thiamin, B6, B12 and riboflavin, play a role in energy production by working with enzymes to help metabolize carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Dark leafy greens, beans and fish are an excellent source of the B-vitamins. But, if you’re not getting enough of these foods, take a supplement that includes the B-complex like VitaMedica’s supplement for energy.
Magnesium. While this mineral is closely associated with bone health, magnesium is involved in over 300 chemical reactions in the body. Magnesium is necessary for the production of ATP, a chemical compound which cells use to store energy or to release energy. This mineral also plays a role in carbohydrate metabolism by influencing the release and activity of insulin. When your levels of magnesium are even a bit low, energy can drop. Dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts (cashews, almonds, hazelnuts) and whole grains are excellent sources of magnesium. If you’re not eating enough magnesium containing foods, take a supplement like VitaMedica’s Bone Support which provides not only magnesium but other bone supporting nutrients.
Iron. The body requires iron to manufacture hemoglobin, a protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen. If iron stores are low, blood cells can’t carry sufficient oxygen to the body’s organs. When the number of red blood cells or the concentration of hemoglobin is low, the most common symptom is fatigue. This condition is called anemia and can be determined by a Complete Blood Count (CBC). Only take an iron supplement if you are iron deficient as getting too much iron can cause health problems especially in older adults. Take iron separately from your other supplements as iron interferes with the absorption of other minerals. Look for heme iron, which is from an animal source, as it is better absorbed and less likely to cause constipation versus non-heme iron (from a plant source).
Herbal Stimulants. Many energy supplements and drinks get their energy boost from botanicals that have natural caffeine sources including guarana, yerba mate, kola nut and green tea. Used on occasion and in small doses, these supplements are fine. But, I wouldn’t rely on them as a long-term solution to raise energy levels.
Adaptogenic Herbs. As an integral part of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, adaptogenic herbs are used to restore a healthy stress response and a normalizing influence on the body. Adaptogenic herbs demonstrate a nonspecific enhancement of the body’s ability to resist a stressor. From improving mood and alleviating depression to reducing fatigue and enhancing energy, herbalists have been preparing these formulas for thousands of years. The most commonly used herbals in this group include Asian Gingseng, maca, ashwangandha, schizandra, cordyceps, astragalus, and reishi mushroom. If you’re interested in using adaptogenic herbs, your best bet is to visit a healthcare professional who specializes in this type of medicine.
The best way to improve your energy levels naturally is by starting slowly. Pick one or two habits that you can easily modify. Make a few changes in your diet that you can live with. Get into the routine of taking a daily Multi-Vitamin & Mineral to cover gaps in your diet.
Once you experience some success, then you can make other changes to improve your energy levels further! And remember it is NEVER too early or too late to start making your health a priority, and the sooner you do the longer you’ll have to reap the benefits.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.