Fighting Fatigue: How To Support Natural Energy Without Stimulants
Feeling tired is a normal and natural function of life—but what about when the fatigue stops solely occurring in the evening and starts to creep into every hour of the day? While many people are tempted to rely on coffee, energy drinks, or other caffeine sources to get through their obligations and activities, stimulants like these have many downsides, ranging from dependence to anxiety to insomnia (which can then create a vicious cycle).
Rather than chugging a third latte or Red Bull—which are temporary band-aids for your lack of energy—there are many foods, supplements, and lifestyle changes to consider adding to your daily routine to fight fatigue. Despite the fact that many of us tend to lose energy as we age, this doesn’t have to be the case.
Fatigue and Aging: What’s the Connection?
Fatigue is different from simply feeling sleepy after a long day or a poor night’s sleep—it encompasses feelings of weariness, excessive tiredness, and lack of energy or focus. While feeling tired can typically be resolved by sleeping more, fatigue tends to be chronic and constant, interfering with your day-to-day life.
While fatigue is caused by many things—medical conditions or medications, stress, and chronically poor sleep, to name a few—growing older also contributes to it. One reason for this is declining levels of NAD+, a coenzyme required by every one of our cells to do their jobs properly. One essential function of NAD+ is turning the food you eat into cellular energy, which powers everything you do in the day—both conscious actions, like tying your shoes, and unconscious actions, like breathing and pumping blood throughout your body.
Tied in with NAD+ production is mitochondrial health—the powerhouses in our cells that produce energy in the form of ATP. Although these tiny organelles are vital to our health, many people can experience a decline in mitochondrial quality with age. Therefore, maintaining strong and functional mitochondrial membranes is essential in supporting healthy energy levels and vitality.
Fighting Fatigue With Lifestyle, Food, and Natural Supplements
Lifestyle Factors to Fight Fatigue
- Physical Activity: Although exercising may be the last thing you feel like doing when you’re fatigued, making moderate activity a regular habit can significantly boost energy. While any form of exercise is beneficial, it may be easiest to start with low-intensity activity, like walking, stretching, or gentle yoga, and work your way up in intensity when you feel more energized. In one study, researchers found that sedentary, fatigued people who engaged in low-intensity aerobic exercise three times per week for six weeks increased their energy levels by 20% and decreased their fatigue by 65%.
- Morning Sunlight: Getting natural light in your eyes within an hour of waking up tells your body to stop producing melatonin, helping to stave off fatigue and boost your energy. Morning light resets your circadian clock for the day, which also will benefit your sleep that night. Although seeing sunlight is best, this still works on cloudy or overcast days.
- Hydration: Dehydration is one of the most common causes of low energy, so monitoring your water intake is crucial. Being dehydrated by just 2% is linked to reduced cognition, including impaired memory, attention, and psychomotor skills. While there are differing opinions about how much water one should drink in a day, a good guideline to go by is using your body weight. Divide your body weight (in pounds) by two, and that would be the ideal amount of ounces of water to drink daily. For example, a 160-pound person should aim for 80 ounces of water.
- Sleep Smart: Both sleeping too much and too little can cause feelings of fatigue and low energy—most adults require 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Tips to sleep better include maintaining consistent sleeping and wake times (even on weekends!), keeping your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool, and avoiding caffeine, large meals, and alcohol in the hours before bed.
- Limit Alcohol and Caffeine: Alcohol is a known disruptor to sleep—no matter how fast it may make you fall asleep, it’s not quality sleep, causing you to feel tired and low-energy the next day. If you’re going to drink alcohol, try to consume it at least four hours before you’re trying to go to sleep. Caffeine needs even longer, as it has an average half-life of six hours—meaning, half of the caffeine from a latte you drank at 4 p.m. will still be in your system by 10 p.m. A caffeine cut-off of around 1 p.m. can help you sleep better that night, ensuring you feel more energized the next day—and, therefore, less reliant on caffeine.
- Rule Out Medical Conditions: If none of these tips work, you may feel fatigued due to an underlying medical condition—make an appointment with your doctor to rule out any health disorders that cause low energy.
You may already know instinctively that some foods make you more tired than others, like an extra-large ice cream sundae, a loaded fast-food cheeseburger, or just about anything eaten on Thanksgiving Day. While it’s true that some foods slow us down, there are also plenty of fatigue-fighting foods that can increase our energy.
- High Protein: Foods primarily made up of protein, like eggs, fish, poultry, or beef, are an easy addition to your meals to fight fatigue. Our bodies require protein to repair and build tissues, as well as to take part in enzymatic activities. Without adequate protein, we can feel sluggish and low-energy. Although true protein deficiencies are rare in the United States, older adults tend to eat less protein with age and require more daily protein than younger adults, which can contribute to lean muscle mass breakdown. Fatigue from undereating protein may come from a reduction in muscle mass or low circulating levels of hemoglobin—the iron-containing protein responsible for transporting oxygen throughout our bodies. Low hemoglobin can lead to feelings of weakness and fatigue, as oxygen isn’t reaching all tissues of the body.
- Low Glycemic and High Fiber: These foods tend to go hand-in-hand, as a higher fiber content will slow down the impact on blood sugar. The Glycemic Index (GI) is a ranking of carbohydrate levels in foods and how quickly the carbohydrates get digested, absorbed, and metabolized into blood sugar. The GI scale ranges from 0-100; foods are considered low-glycemic if they rank at 55 or below. The combination of low-glycemic and high-fiber means that you don’t get a steep blood sugar spike and subsequent crash after eating that food, which can cause often-dramatic declines in energy and mood. Instead, the sugar gets released slowly and provides energy for extended periods. Foods that fit this bill include non-starchy vegetables, berries, beans, lentils, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
- Nuts and Seeds: Nuts and seeds are packed with protein, fiber, and healthy fats. This combination of macronutrients leads to a stable release of energy while keeping you satiated. Another critical component of nuts and seeds is their magnesium content—an essential mineral and cofactor for hundreds of biochemical actions in the body, one of which is energy production. Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and flaxseeds have the highest magnesium levels.
- Dark Chocolate: Dark chocolate has energy-boosting potential—as long as the sugar content isn’t too high. In general, the higher percentage of cocoa in dark chocolate means the sugar will be lower. Dark chocolate has caffeine (in small amounts) and theobromine, both of which are stimulatory compounds. Research also backs up chocolate’s fatigue-fighting potential, as seen in this study, where participants received either 1.5 ounces of 85% dark chocolate or milk chocolate with less than 30% cocoa. After an exercise test on the treadmill, those who ate the dark chocolate could walk 11% longer. The researchers attribute this to the fact that the polyphenols in dark chocolate help the body produce more nitric oxide, a compound that allows for better blood flow—and, therefore, more energy.
- Bananas: Although bananas are higher in sugar than some other fruits, they are not too high on the GI scale, with variations depending on the type of banana you choose. An underripe banana (more green-colored) has a GI of 30, while a ripe (all-yellow) banana has a GI of 51. Bananas are an easy and portable snack to boost your energy, being a good source of fiber, potassium, and vitamin B6. You can make your banana snack even more of a fatigue-fighter if you add a little bit of fat or protein to it, slowing down the release of sugar into the blood. A perfect combination is a banana with a smear of nut butter.
- Beets: Beets and beetroot juice have been shown to boost energy due to their natural nitrate content, which gets converted into nitric oxide. As mentioned with dark chocolate, nitric oxide increases blood flow to the cardiorespiratory system, muscles, and the brain. Nitric oxide production decreases with age, which is thought to be one contributor to the increased risk of chronic disease in older populations. Beetroot juice, which is rich in nitric oxide, has been found to improve mitochondrial function and efficiency and increase ATP production, which leads to increased energy.
- Green Tea: Green tea is rich in L-theanine, an amino acid that promotes a relaxed yet alert mental state. While green tea contains caffeine, adding L-theanine fights the jitters or anxiety you may feel from coffee while still providing a calming and stimulating effect. Research shows that combining L-theanine and caffeine (as seen in green tea and matcha) improves cognitive performance and mental alertness in healthy adults. However, as green tea and matcha contain caffeine, you will still want to utilize your caffeine cut-off time to prioritize healthy sleep.
Natural Supplements to Boost Energy
Age-related fatigue can occur from low NAD+ levels, mitochondrial dysfunction, or reduced ATP production. Several compounds may support healthy energy levels by allowing the mitochondria to efficiently produce ATP from food, boosting NAD+ production, or strengthening mitochondrial membranes and antioxidant capacity.
- NAD+ Precursors: Every cell needs NAD+ to function—and we can feel fatigued or low energy if we don’t have enough of it. Two common NAD+ precursors are NMN (nicotinamide mononucleotide) and NR (nicotinamide riboside).
- Alpha-ketoglutarate (AKG): This antioxidant compound stimulates ATP production, as it is a vital component of the Krebs cycle—a series of reactions that creates energy from food.
- B Vitamins: Several B vitamins—especially B6 and B12—are key players in the body’s energy production process. Supplementing with B vitamins may work best for fighting fatigue if you are deficient in these nutrients.
- Rhodiola Rosea: Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogenic herb that may support healthy energy and mood. The greatest benefits, especially with fighting fatigue, occur when low doses are given over longer periods. In research with highly stressed adults, those who took 400 mg of Rhodiola for 12 weeks significantly improved their symptoms of lack of concentration, burnout, stress, and anxiety.
- Coenzyme Q10. CoQ10 is a coenzyme (like NAD+)—a “helper” molecule that activates and assists other enzymes with functioning correctly to make energy from food. CoQ10 is essential for the cellular respiration pathways that make ATP and may work particularly well with NADH (the “reduced” form of NAD). One study found that severely fatigued people who supplemented with CoQ10 + NADH for 12 weeks experienced significant improvements in measures of cognitive fatigue, sleep duration, and sleep efficiency.
- Creatine: This molecule is produced in the body from amino acids and stores high-energy phosphate groups, which can then be regenerated into ATP. Although creatine is most well-known for supporting acute physical energy (like during a workout), research also suggests it can help to fight cognitive fatigue.
Feeling fatigued becomes increasingly common as we age—but it doesn’t have to be that way. Lifestyle changes, foods, and certain supplements can help to fight fatigue and boost energy without relying on stimulants. From getting morning sunlight to prioritizing protein to swapping coffee for matcha, there are many things you can do to support energy levels at all ages.
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