So many Americans feel run-down and short on energy that it’s small talk material—everyday water cooler conversation. In fact, 6 million of us see doctors each year seeking relief from chronic fatigue. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking low energy is a fact of life, especially when so many people around you suffer from it. Americans sleep less and work more than most of the industrialized world.
But going through life running on empty isn’t just exhausting. Fatigue can have serious consequences, from long-term health problems to dangerous accidents. “Fatigue impairs you as if you were drunk or on sedative drugs,” the Sleep Health Foundation reported. “In fact, studies show that 17 hours without sleep impairs your driving in the same way as having a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent.”
So what can Americans do about fatigue? Here are some tips to help improve your sleep.
Catch Some Zzzs
Does an extra hour or two give you more pep in your step? Do you need a dose of caffeine to get through the afternoon slump? Does your commute make you drowsy? For one in three American adults, the amount of sleep they’re getting just isn’t enough.
It’s the obvious solution for good reason—sleep and energy levels are inextricably linked. There’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for how much sleep a person needs, though. Factors such as age, lifestyle, and your physical health all play a part in how much sleep is right for you.
The National Sleep Foundation does provide guidelines for how much sleep people need. According to them, most adults should shoot for seven to nine hours of shuteye a night. However, the National Sleep Foundation is careful to point out that people should pay attention to how they feel to optimize their sleep schedule and adjust as needed.
Fuel Your Body With Food
A lack of nutrition, not necessarily in calories but in your recommended doses of vitamins and minerals, results in fatigue for a biological reason. Your trillions of cells need those nutrients to produce the energy required to fuel your body. Even if you take supplements, they aren’t enough to do the job alone. To combat fatigue, make sure you get plenty of B vitamins, magnesium, and antioxidants.
It’s not just nutrition deficiencies that can set you up for energy slumps. Eating too much of the wrong foods can interfere with sleep cycles and blood sugar regulation. Two of the most common culprits are caffeine and sugar. Despite the initial boost, doctor of natural medicine Josh Axe explained, “Giving in to the carb-crash cycle the first time increases the likelihood that you’ll go through the same thing just a few hours later when your body is craving another cheap, quick high.” And in the long run, relying on caffeine and sugar to make it through the day can elevate levels of the stress hormone cortisol and cause insulin resistance, which can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Getting a good balance of nutrients at the right times is just as important as what you eat. A sugary breakfast such as kids’ cereal or doughnuts provides a quick dose of energy, it’s true. However, the spike in blood sugar sets you up for a rollercoaster of ups and downs. Switch out the sugar for a breakfast that blends protein with high-fiber carbs and beneficial fats to stop the yo-yo effect.
Check Into Other Causes
While fatigue doesn’t always indicate deeper health problems, low energy can be a sign that something is wrong. If you’re getting plenty of quality rest, eating a balanced diet, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding stress, but low energy persists for two weeks, it’s not a bad idea to talk with your doctor. He or she can perform an examination or order diagnostic tests to get to the bottom of what’s happening. Tests might include blood work, X-rays, or imaging scans to rule out potential causes and hone in on the root cause of your tiredness.
Low energy that gets in the way of everyday life and lasts more than six months without a detectable cause is classified as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Over a million Americans have CFS. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CFS “strikes more people in the United States than multiple sclerosis, lupus, and many forms of cancer.” Symptoms other than a lack of energy can include headaches, body aches, dizziness, nausea, and problems with memory or focus. Researchers have not yet determined what causes CFS or how to cure it. Doctors treat CFS with a combination of diet, sleep management techniques, medication, and in some cases, cognitive behavioral therapy or a gradually increasing exercise routine.
Consider Your Circumstances
In addition to what’s going on inside your body, the outside world can have a big impact on your energy level. Long hours on the job, shift work, stress, or jet lag can deplete your energy reserves and bring on fatigue. If you know busy days are ahead, you can plan to be at your best. Gradually adjust your schedule to decrease the risk of jet lag, or plan healthy meals and time for much-needed breaks if you have to lose some sleep.
Stress every once in a while can’t be avoided, but if feeling drained begins to impact your quality of life, it’s time to take a look at how you can make some changes. A few small tweaks to your routine or a visit with your doctor could trigger huge changes in your mood, productivity, and health. Having the energy not just to get through your day but to achieve your goals and feel good doing it is too important to do without.