An extra-long nap probably won’t cut it.
If you can’t seem to keep your eyes open at your desk, you might need more than just one good night’s sleep. While rest is important in combatting fatigue, almost everything you do plays a role in boosting your energy levels—from what you eat, to how you breathe. In her new book, The Exhaustion Breakthrough, general internist Dr. Holly Phillips shares a few easy lifestyle tweaks that can reduce fatigue—or at least help you target the root of the problem.
Write everything down.
Phillips’ research was based on her subjects’ seven-day exhaustion diaries, and she recommends that anyone trying to assess their energy levels copies that exercise. Write down what you eat (and when) and detail your sleep quality and any stressors you experience to start. “When patients write things down, that’s when you can start to make connections between energy level and energy drains,” explains Phillips.
Check in with your body.
“Set an alarm to go off every hour,” says Phillips. “Start at the top and scan down to your toes. You’re looking for tension spots or areas of discomfort.” Check for a clenched jaw, furrowed brows, or hunched posture, and then take time to correct it. “Poor posture makes you look tired and it makes you feel tired,” says Phillips. Take 10 deep breaths—you’ll find that a relaxed, open body will feel instantly more energized.
“We take it for granted,” Phillips says of breathing, but it’s an extremely important part of energy. “Make your breathing conscious, at least once an hour,” says Phillips. “If you make that conscious effort on a regular basis, even when it becomes unconscious you’ll have a better breathing technique.” Breathing correctly will also help improve a slumped posture, so breathe deeply—from your diaphragm, not your chest—to keep oxygen and blood flowing all day.
Not forever—just while you’re trying to figure out why you’re so tired. “The focus is to minimize all sleep disturbances,” explains Phillips, who asked her subjects to sleep solo during their seven-day breakthrough challenge. “If you have a partner who tosses and turns or sets an alarm, you’re not completing the sleep cycle that your body needs.” To create a sleep sanctuary, kick everyone out (even the cat), wear a sleep mask, keep the room between 60 and 67 degrees, and eliminate electronics—the blue light stimulates the brain. If sleeping alone is unrealistic, try using separate blankets, says Phillips, which should help minimize disruptions.
Never sit for longer than an hour.
“When you sit, it affects how deeply you breathe and it slows your heart rate,” explains Phillips. Sitting has many consequences—a recent University Health Network study even linked prolonged sitting with higher rates of disease and death. But, echoing Phillips’ advice, a University of Utah study found that an extra two minutes of walking per hour might offset the risks.
Take naps as needed.
While a short nap is fine, it cannot replace a good night’s sleep, warns Phillips. Short naps can help to boost alertness, mood, and concentration, but if you feel like you need long naps every day, there is likely something else going on (you should talk to your doctor in that case). According to the National Sleep Foundation, a 40-minute nap is ideal: It boosts alertness and performance by 100 and 34 percent, respectively (at least in sleepy military pilots and astronauts).
Eat real food.
Avoid foods where the ingredient list is full of items ending in ‘-ose,’ like glucose or fructose. If you focus on avoiding foods with long ingredient lists, you’ll naturally gravitate towards whole foods. For more energy, Phillips advises specifically focusing on foods with magnesium and iron, which you can find in seeds, nuts, fish, and colorful, leafy vegetables. Additionally, don’t skip breakfast. Even if you have a small bowl of cereal or slice of toast, it can jumpstart your metabolism and remind your body to wake up. (Here are some of our favorite breakfast recipes.)
Know your hormones.
“In the days leading up to the start of the menstrual cycle, many women experience insomnia and bloating, which disturb sleep,” says Phillips. “Make sure you give yourself time for extra rest and exercise, which mitigates PMS symptoms.” For women going through menopause, the drops in estrogen can cause insomnia, says Phillips. In addition, she says, thyroid and adrenal glands play major roles in energy levels—thyroid disorders can slow metabolism and digestion, making you feel tired; adrenal disorders, often triggered by stress, can induce chronic fatigue and body aches. If you think you have a hormonal disorder that’s draining your energy, ask your doctor about treatment options.
That last bit of advice is key to handling exhaustion. “Fatigue is essentially a side effect of every single medical condition,” says Phillips. If you’re getting enough sleep and eating right, but still feel exhausted, see your doctor.