We’ve all dealt with bouts of low energy at one point or another. Perhaps due to a long, grueling work week, a stretch of sleepless nights, or feelings of malaise when motivation was low. While occasional low energy is normal and to be expected in today’s busy world, persistent low energy that starts to impact your daily life can have a number of unwanted health side effects, including impaired judgment, decreased coordination, and increased irritability. Chronic fatigue and low energy can also be signs of more serious health conditions, like an overactive thyroid or heart disease, or be a symptom of a mental health issue, like depression.
But more likely your low energy is due to lifestyle or environmental factors, so hitting the vending machine for an energy drink or Starbucks for a Venti cold brew every few hours is not the best or most sustainable way to perk yourself up. Instead, we’ve gathered expert-recommended tips for safe and natural strategies to boost your energy levels. Here’s how to have more energy fast and how to get more energy on a long-term basis, according to doctors.
Why You Have Low Energy
Low energy can stem from any number (or a combination) of factors, including exercising too little or too much, insufficient sleep, certain medications, depression or anxiety, stress and burnout, certain foods and eating habits, and even drinking too much alcohol. So many people are plagued by low energy that “having more energy” is an extremely common health goal for adults who are tired, overworked, underslept, or energy deficient for no reason they can account for. A 2020 poll from the National Sleep Foundation found that 57 percent of all American adults with no reported sleep problems said they felt sleepy on an average of 2.4 days a week. So why are they so low-energy?
Research from the last several years has proven that the COVID-19 pandemic (among other major, concurrent stressors) continues to zap Americans of their energy, with three in five Americans surveyed in 2021 reporting they felt more tired than they’d ever felt in their lives.
But beyond this type of timely, exceptional circumstance, Sony Sherpa, MD, a holistic physician with Nature’s Rise, says low energy that isn’t caused by medication or chronic conditions is often due to three culprits: not getting enough sleep, poor eating habits, and mental stress.
“Not getting enough sleep is one of the most common factors behind feeling low on energy,” she says. “Sleep is restorative physically and mentally—it’s your body’s way of recuperating from all the stress it experienced [during] the day.”
Not eating the right balance of foods.
Nutrition—both the actual food we eat and our eating schedules and habits—is so closely tied to our energy levels. Food is fuel, afterall. But not all food offers the ideal kind of energy: the kind that lasts and won’t leave you with an even lower energy dip later on; the kind that powers up our many internal systems to thrive long term.
“Eating habits, such as skipping meals or simply consuming unhealthy food, can also tax your system and prevent you from feeling energized,” says Dr. Sherpa. Not eating when you’re hungry is not a good plan for having energy. But when we consistently consume overly processed and high-added-sugar foods, for example, they may be tasty, convenient, and a temporary energy jolt—but the bad news is they end up spiking our blood sugar levels, which consequently leads to crashing them, “resulting in feeling drained and sluggish,” she explains. This spike-and-dip roller coaster is detrimental to our health and can leave you in a chronic cycle of low energy.
Lastly, being stressed too much and too often is a surefire way to feel completely drained of energy. “When your mind is always in overdrive, it’s difficult for your body to catch a break and generate energy,” Dr. Sherpa says. When you’re in stress mode, your entire system is using the little energy it has just to keep you up and running on the most basic levels, and cope with the situation at hand—leaving you without the energy to think and plan ahead, be productive and active, feel joyful and hopeful, and all the things that make life great.
The Telltale Signs of Low Energy
In addition to simply feeling tired, low energy can present itself in the body in several ways both physically and mentally. “Common signs and symptoms of low energy include feeling constantly lethargic or exhausted, decreased willingness to engage in social situations, and a general feeling of being unwell, especially if the condition is chronic,” Dr. Sherpa says. “You may also have trouble sleeping, increased irritability and anxiety, and problems with concentration.” It’s important to recognize these markers early, she adds, so you can make the right healthy changes and prevent more serious health issues down the line.
How to Get More Energy (That Lasts)
If you’re desperate to have more energy that’s steady, effective, and more holistic than your quick-fix afternoon cappuccino, consider these healthy lifestyle tips and habit changes that’ll energize you long term.
Eat for energy.
Diet can play a huge role in your energy levels, especially if you’re eating too much sugar and processed foods. While you don’t necessarily have to revamp or totally restrict your entire diet, Dr. Sherpa says simply starting by being mindful of what you’re eating can go a long way. “This means being aware of the nutritional value of the foods you consume and making sure that you’re getting the right balance of nutrients,” she says. Eat foods that are nutrient dense, meaning they pack in impressive amounts of macronutrients and micronutrients every time you eat them—the definition of bang for your buck.
Don’t think in terms of what you “can’t” eat or need less of; think in terms of what you should eat more of: add vegetables, fruits, whole (unprocessed) grains, plus protein (mostly fish and lean meats), legumes, and healthy fats (olive oil, fatty fish, avocados). In other words, you’re not “not allowed” to eat pasta! Instead, add a veggie or two and protein to your pasta dish, or start with a crispy green salad, so the meal includes protein and fiber as well as carbs to fill you up and keep you satisfied for a long time. Craving bacon and eggs? Throw some spinach into your scramble, put some avocado toast under it, or whip up a superfood smoothie to sip alongside it.
Get regular exercise.
When your energy is lacking, exercise is probably the last thing you feel like doing. but physical activity is, perhaps counterintuitively, essential for combatting low energy. But it’s no secret that being active can help delay up to 40 chronic conditions, but it can also increase your stamina, or how much energy you have. Still, you don’t have to toil away at the gym every day to up your energy levels.
“Even if you’re not able to get to the gym or go for a run everyday, there are still plenty of ways to get some exercise in,” Dr. Sherpa says. “Taking a brisk walk around your neighborhood is a great way to get some fresh air and get your heart rate up. Regular exercise is important for maintaining a healthy weight, reducing your risk of chronic diseases, and improving your overall mood and energy levels.” Not only does exercise have a direct impact on energy, but its benefits affect other factors that impact energy, too: mood, sleep, stress, brain health, immunity, metabolism, and so much more.
Make movement a non-negotiable part of your day for more energy. Dance in your room to your favorite music and your headphones on for 15 minutes. Do 50 jumping jacks while on hold with the electric company. Get out the vacuum and clean the living room.
Learn how to manage your stress levels.
Stress is an essential mechanism for survival—but at a certain point being in a constant state of stress (called chronic stress) can have detrimental effects on your health and well-being. In addition to its impact on your heart, blood pressure, and sleep, stress can cause your energy to plummet, even if you’re sleeping and eating just fine (although being that stressed often impacts sleep and appetite, too). That’s why learning how to manage and mitigate your stress levels is so important for keeping your energy balance in check. There’s no universal way to manage stress. Different things trigger stress for different people, and certain stress-relieving techniques work for some, but not others, depending on interests, lifestyle, and hobbies.
“Some stress-relieving activities include yoga, meditation, and spending time in nature,” Dr. Sherpa suggests. “You can also try to avoid stressful situations when possible and learn how to deal with stress in a healthy way.”
Always remember you can turn to others for support. “Talk with a friend or relative, join a support group or see a psychotherapist,” says Stella Bard, MD, board-certified rheumatologist. “You can also use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and tai chi. You can also reduce stress by streamlining your to-do list and addressing your priorities first.”
Stay properly hydrated.
Drinking enough water everyday is the most essential thing you can do for your body—and it can also make a big impact on your energy. Studies show that people who replace sugary drinks with water actually use fewer calories, or expend less energy, during the day, which helps conserve and balance their energy expenditure. The highest water drinkers also saw the most benefits for energy. “Dehydration is one of the most common reasons to feel tired,” Dr. Bard explains. So sip regularly throughout the day, eat hydrating foods (fruit and veggies are excellent) and beverages (including tea, coffee, and milk), and listen to obvious body cues, like thirst and urine color (your pee should be a pale, almost-clear yellow).
Cut your coffee intake.
Many people turn to a cup of coffee or other sources of caffeine for a quick energy boost, but Dr. Bard explains that coffee is less helpful for energy than people think. While modest coffee consumption (think: one to three cups per day) is associated with some great short- and long-term health benefits, including direct and indirect boosts in energy, too much can actually rob you of energy.
“Caffeine increases the release of stress hormones, which raise blood pressure and can cause one to feel stressed [and less energized]. Caffeine can also [disrupt sleep] when consumed after 2 p.m.,” she says. “This leads to a vicious cycle, so avoid excessive use of caffeine.” After your second or third cup of joe, consider switching over to decaf coffee, low-caffeine or herbal tea, or a simple glass of water.
When to Call the Doctor
If you give these efforts a solid try for two whole without noticing any improvement, Dr. Bard suggests seeing a doctor to rule out any underlying conditions. However, she recommends seeing a healthcare professional immediately if you have chest pain, shortness of breath, feel like you’re passing out, or have severe body pain in addition to low energy.