If there's one thing we all want in life, it's to have a purpose. It's such a simple need, but without it, we can often feel helpless and lost. We move through life seeking out those things that make us feel fulfilled and worthy of being here. The careers and creative paths we choose play a huge role in keeping us on track to achieve this goal. But the fast-paced technology-fueled world we live in can compromise that mission and leave us feeling overwhelmed, fatigued, and sometimes burned out. If you're constantly asking yourself why you're always tired, then it might be time to address the things that are causing your stress levels to spike out of control and remedy it with energy-boosting rituals and foods.
Since our modern lives are fraught with calendar reminders and deadlines, sometimes on a daily basis, just the thought of slowing down can trigger anxiety, but Libby Weaver, PhD, one of Australasia's leading nutritional biochemists and author of new book Exhausted to Energized, says this is slowly taking a toll on our energy and our health. "If we feel overwhelmed (and as though we have more to do than time in the day allows), it's going to take a toll on our energy because we are communicating distress to our body, and the body will respond by making stress hormones—specifically adrenalin and cortisol," she told MyDomaine.
"We're more likely to be worried or feel anxious because we don't feel on top of things, which puts our body into what I refer to as the 'red zone'—the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Because our body links stress to survival, if we spend too much time in the red zone, it's going to start impacting on our ability to rest effectively, which is going to take even more of a toll on our energy. It can become one troublesome cycle."
Ahead, Weaver shares some of her simple yet effective strategies and daily habits to avoid the stress trap, the energy-boosting foods you should eat, the link between digestion and energy, and why your morning coffee is a major trigger.
Good Digestion is the foundation of energy
We're all familiar with that feeling when we've eaten something we shouldn't have. Your stomach doesn't feel quite right, often resulting in that dreaded bloated feeling or worse. Poor digestion also greatly impacts your energy levels. According to Weaver, without good digestion, nothing works properly, including your body's ability to extract and experience energy from the food you eat. "The capacity of your digestive system to produce good levels of stomach acid begins what is known as a pH gradient through the gut that determines how well you break food down and absorb the nutrients available," she explains.
"Digestion is intricate and complex, and it is intimately connected to how you feel and function every single day. From your energy levels to the fat you burn, from the texture and appearance of your skin to whether you have a bloated tummy, right down to your mood. Digestion sustains us; it is the process of breaking down food so that we can absorb and utilize it for energy. So if it's not functioning optimally, we're going to feel it in many different ways—including with energy issues."
Your Daily Coffee Is Making You Tired (and Stressed Out)
With the stressful lives we lead, many of us are running on adrenalin, and one of the energy zappers is caffeine. It's a hard pill to swallow, and we hate to be the bearers of bad news, but your much-loved morning ritual could be the reason your energy is so low and you're feeling stressed out. We can already hear your collective groan at the thought of giving it up, and we know it's hard—I did and the detox process wasn't pretty—but if you're serious about boosting your energy, Weaver urges you to reconsider that cup of joe for a superfood latte instead. Here's why.
"Caffeine is a stimulant, so when it hits our system, it binds to what are known as the adenosine receptors in the brain," she explained. "This sends a signal to the adrenal glands to release adrenalin. Adrenalin, being one of our stress hormones, is not designed to be churned out 24-7. So if we're feeling stressed, pressured, or overwhelmed and running around trying to do a million things at once—already pumping out adrenalin—and then we go a gulp down a coffee (or two or five!), we're signaling to our bodies to make even more adrenalin.
"Because this is our get-out-of-danger hormone, the body mobilizes glucose (sugar) to power you to get out of the danger that adrenalin drives your body to perceive that it is in. You then burn that glucose (or put it back into storage) with the subsequent surges and drops in energy levels that accompany the highs of high adrenalin and sugar (instead of body fat) utilization. You soar, and then you crash and you feel like only more caffeine and sugar can fuel you. Your body has the capacity to supply you with outstanding energy. We just have to allow it to do this."
Ditch Energy-Busting Foods
If you are feeling stressed, fatigued, and burned out, then Weaver says anything that detracts from your health and puts pressure on your body is best minimized or omitted if possible. That means cutting out foods that zap your energy or increase your cortisol levels. Weaver's top five are refined sugar, caffeine, alcohol, trans fats, and highly processed foods.
"Often people aren't so good at removing things from how they eat—if it was that easy, they would have done it already," she said. "I find it is usually more useful to simply focus on including more whole and real foods. Aim for one more real food meal or drink or snack each week, which I don't think is overwhelming for an individual or a family. Within in two months of doing this, you will have doubled the number of nutrients going in. For so many people, that would change their health and energy."
Chew Your Food Properly
It might seem too simple to make a difference, or even a little obvious, but one of the best ways to improve your digestion (and therefore your energy) is to chew your food properly. Weaver says taking the time to implement this small action can make a world of difference to our digestion. "When we swallow some partially chewed food and some not-at-all-chewed food, we're asking an awful lot of our stomach," she said. "This alone can be the basis of digestive system problems, such as bloating."
Don't Drink Water With Your Meals
How often do you have a glass of water with your meal? It seems like a staple of every tablescape but Weaver says it's time to ditch the H2O at mealtime. "When we drink water with our meals, we're essentially diluting our stomach acid," she said. "Ideally, our stomach sits at a pH of 1.9. Water sits at a pH of 7 or greater—depending on the mineral content of it. So drinking water with our meals compromises the effectiveness of our digestion by diluting our stomach acid."
Weaver says the main issue with this is that many people today have stomach acid that is not acidic enough to break down food effectively. "We can improve our stomach acid by avoiding drinking water with our meals (drink between meals) and stimulate stomach acid production by taking apple cider vinegar or lemon juice in warm water around 10 to 15 minutes before we eat."
Be Aware of the Signs
The problem with digestive issues is that most people aren't even aware they have them. Weaver tells us there are many symptoms that people accept as the norm for them when the reality is they're common but not normal. So how do you know when your digestive system isn't functioning at its optimal level? Weaver says to be aware of the signs. "You will experience anything from reflux, excessive burping, bloating, IBS, constipation, diarrhea, or stomach cramps through to sluggish energy, food sensitivities, dark circles under our eyes, and skin breakouts," she said.
Implement the "Stop, Keep, Start" Strategy when stress hits
A useful strategy Weaver suggests in her book to reduce stress is "stop, keep, start." This exercise helps you to get a handle on your priorities—what we want more of in our lives and what we want less of in our lives. So how does it work? "It entails asking ourselves, What am I going to stop doing? What am I going to keep doing? What am I going to start doing?" says Weaver.
"Stop, keep, start goals can make change fun, manageable, and suitable for your lifestyle. When we take some time to reflect and inquire within ourselves, it's endlessly astounding what we can come up with. There will be things you know in your heart that you need to stop doing for better energy. However, there will also be things you already do that foster your own energy (keep) and things that you would do well to embrace (start)."
Stop and Take a Break
While we can all agree (unanimously) that stress is seriously taking its toll on our energy, we don't always know how to curb it before it's too late. But the remedy may be simpler and more accessible than you think. Weaver says it's as simple as taking a moment to stop, to give your body a break.
"Time for proper rest is incredibly important, and not just sleep—though that is important as well," she urged. "If we are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, we're going to feel as though we don't have time to stop, but the very act of not stopping is feeding the stress. So taking some time to ourselves where we have nothing to do can be incredibly energizing, even if it's just 15 to 30 minutes a day. It can help to create a sense of spaciousness even though what is on our to-do list hasn't changed."
If you're not sure how to change, then Weaver recommends changing how you show up to attend to those tasks. "It's important to communicate to our bodies that it's safe to stop churning out stress hormones," she said. Some of the great ways you can do this are through gentle yoga (such as restorative yoga), tai chi, qi gong, meditation, or a simple diaphragmatic breathing exercise.
"It can also help to shift our thinking from I have to to Wow, I get to do what we have ahead of us each day. Most people in the world would be beside themselves to have the lives we have, given our basic needs are met, yet still for too many people that is not the case. You cannot be grateful and make stress hormones at the same time."
Introduce Some Stress-Free Rituals
If you're addicted to stress and feel like it's consuming you, then Weaver suggests starting your day with something as simple as getting outside for a walk, in nature if possible. "It can make such an amazing difference to the rest of our day," she said. "Any kind of daily ritual that helps us relax (is good). It's important for us to find things that work because if we don't enjoy something, chances are it won't stick."
On top of this, remembering what a gift life is and how much we have to be grateful for is also key to reducing stress—a gratitude journal is a great place to start. "I know that might sound a bit eye roll–ish, but science has proven unequivocally that our nervous system cannot focus on two things at once, so if we're feeling grateful we can't possibly be feeling stressed," she said.
Restore Your Energy With Energy-Boosting Foods
With a packed calendar, it's often hard to sit down and eat a healthy lunch (let alone a mindful one), so very often lunch becomes a rice cake with peanut butter or a packet of chips from the snack machine. But without proper nutrition, Weaver says our bodies are less equipped to handle stress and our energy plateaus come the afternoon. Here she shares the top four food groups we should eat every day to boost energy levels and combat stress.
"Particularly the brassica family such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and Brussels sprouts. These vegetables are a powerhouse of nutrients, including antioxidants and other substances that are unique to these foods. The body uses many of these substances for specific biochemical pathways (such as sulforaphane for liver detoxification), which will lead to lousy energy if it is not efficient."
Vitamin B-Rich Foods
"In particular vitamin B1, B2 and B3. These three vitamins are critical for turning food into an energy source within our body. Lentils, nuts, and seeds contain vitamin B1; leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, almonds, and eggs are rich in vitamin B2; and B3 is found in highest concentrations in meats such as beef, pork, chicken, and fish while lesser amounts can be found in peanuts and beans."
"They provide us with fatty acids, which are an important source of energy, many of which are considered 'essential,' as the body cannot synthesize them—they must be eaten to be obtained. The best sources of fat for energy come from avocado, coconut, organic butter, and meat from pasture-fed animals, oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, whole blackcurrants (the fat is in the seed), and evening primrose oil."
"Iron is essential for the transportation of oxygen around the body. Studies show that 20 to 30% of menstruating women in Australia are iron-deficient, which can be the result of poor dietary intake, poor absorption, undiagnosed coeliac disease, or heavy menstrual blood loss. Foods containing iron include red meat, eggs, mussels, dates, and green leafy vegetables."
Into this category also falls things that are best avoided. Food is the only way we obtain physical energy—from the macronutrients—fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Many processed foods contain substances that science is now showing we have no ability to break down inside our digestive systems. When you supply your body with too many of these problematic substances, you can interrupt your body’s ability to obtain and experience energy. So minimize (or omit) your consumption of processed foods for excellent long-term sustained energy."
If you're keen to return your body from exhausted to energized, then shop Weaver's book below:
How do you keep your body energized? Share your stress-busting tactics below.