Feeling exhausted right now? Wondering why you’re always tired and sleepy, and when you’ll have a chance for a quick nap? Or perhaps you’re dreading getting woken up during the night again?
If you get through each day on autopilot and fantasise about napping whenever humanly possible, this article is for you. Even if you’re so tired that you feel like this is your new normal, there is help.
We asked GP Jill Gamberg for some expert advice on what causes fatigue and how to boost your energy when you’re tired by making small, healthy changes.
The first thing she said is that it’s really common to feel tired. In fact, Dr Jill says, “One of the most frequent reasons Australians come to see their doctor is that they’re tired.”
Why you might feel tired
First, let’s take a look at what causes fatigue. Dr Jill says that the concept of having energy – or not having it – is quite subjective.
Levels of fatigue can vary between people, depending on their personality and attitude. One person’s ‘feeling really tired’ might actually not be that bad for another.
“A lot of it depends on your personality, behaviour and attitude,” Dr Jill comments.
With that in mind, here are a few other reasons that you might be tired.
Energy levels fluctuate - our circadian rhythms, stress levels, sleep, stress and diet all play a role.
Stress and burnout
Often, there are psychological reasons behind fatigue, Dr Jill says. “Stress, burnout, anxiety, overwork and not sleeping enough all make us tired.”
Do you have young children, work long hours or do shift work? Are you a solo parent? Or do you care for older family members? If so, it’s no wonder you’re exhausted.
Natural changes in energy
Our energy levels naturally change throughout the day too, depending on a whole range of factors, Dr Jill says.
“Energy fluctuates due to our circadian rhythms, stress levels, how much sleep we get, what job we do and whether we have a family or not.”
Some people might notice that they have a peak period in the morning when they feel most alert and able to focus on complex tasks. Then their energy might slump a bit around mid-afternoon before it perks up again around dinner time. And finally, they get tired again around bedtime.
According to Dr Jill, “That's just a normal circadian rhythm.” However, not everyone has the same circadian rhythm. Some people might find that their energy levels peak in the early afternoon, and others peak after sunset.
There’s no right or wrong here, Dr Jill adds. Just observe your natural circadian rhythms, and try to work with them where possible. She recommends not trying to fight your natural rhythms: you’ll be battling against biology.
How to boost your energy levels when you’re tired
“There’s no magic bullet for boosting your energy levels,” Dr Jill says. (No, not even coffee!)
But there are some measures you can take to help: here are Dr Jill’s tips for boosting your energy when you’re tired.
1. Eat well, eat often and reduce junk food
We all know that a healthy diet boosts our overall health, but it’s also key to maintaining energy throughout the day for a couple of reasons.
First, eating a healthy diet will ensure you get plenty of energy-supporting vitamins and minerals. “Try to include lots of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and lean proteins in your daily meals,” Dr Jill advises.
Secondly, these foods are sources of longer-lasting, more stable energy for your body. “High-GI foods like lollies, cakes and soft drinks are ‘sometimes foods’,” she adds. They give you a short-lived, temporary rush, but a crash will usually follow it. “It's fine to have them sometimes, but try to reduce how much of them you eat overall.”
Finally, Dr Jill recommends eating smaller amounts more often. “Theoretically, the human body is built to graze constantly throughout the day,” Dr Jill comments. So try eating less, more frequently rather than gorging on a huge meal, which can make you really sleepy.
And, of course, remember to drink lots of water.
Move your body more, regular exercise can help give your energy level a boost.
2. Move your body more
Have you ever swum laps at the pool or gone for a jog, and felt like a million bucks afterwards? Then you’ll know how exercise gives you a huge energy boost.
Not exercising or moving enough causes fatigue, Dr Jill says. “We all sit too much and don't move our bodies enough.”
Dr Jill has a very simple tip for a quick energy boost during the day. “Stand up, walk around the room and do a few squats. That kind of incidental exercise will give you energy, just like regular planned physical activity.”
When it comes to how much exercise we need, she mentions that the standard recommendation for 150 minutes per week will help most people feel more energised.
And don’t feel you have to do that 150 minutes of exercise all together. Even if you break it up into 10-minute chunks over the week, you still get the health benefits.
3. Put yourself to bed early
Of course, if you work shifts, or you’re woken during the night by young kids or a snoring partner, you’re probably tired so often it feels normal.
But sometimes, we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to going to bed on time. If you’ve ever stayed up late when you’re tired just to get some ‘you-time’, you’ll know how this goes.
Dr Jill says she sees desperately tired patients who just don’t give themselves enough hours of sleep. “We all have different sleep needs, but most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per day,” she says.
It’s not all about the number of hours though: there are also ways of getting better sleep to energise you during the day.
4. Get your iron levels checked
If you’re female, you might be tired because of low iron levels.
Dr Jill says that low iron can cause fatigue, but thankfully it’s an easily treatable problem.
“Taking general vitamin supplements probably won’t make you feel better,” she cautions. “However, if you have an iron deficiency, supplements can help you boost your energy levels, which can make a huge difference.”
Give yourself some screen-free time – the blue light from your phone screen might interfere with sleep.
5. Cut your social media time
Social media can deplete our energy because it increases our stress, which then adds to our fatigue, Dr Jill says. “Social media gives us all the false impression that everyone else is having a wonderful life, and we're missing out.”
So give yourself some screen-free time – especially in the evenings, because the blue light from your phone or tablet screen might interfere with sleep.
6. Track your energy levels and schedule around them
Dr Jill says that understanding how your energy levels change throughout the day can help you schedule your life around them. Working with your natural rhythms will always be more manageable than trying to push through a mentally demanding task during your slump period.
Tracking your energy levels can give you a big-picture view of your energy highs and lows during the day. It can also help you to work out the best times for projects that need a lot of concentration or exercise that requires energy.
If you’re a woman (or someone else who menstruates), you might also find that your energy levels change during your menstrual cycle. “It's good to map out your days and months to see when you're most productive and how you feel,” Dr Jill says.
You don’t need an app or digital tracker for this – just use a notebook or planner to record your energy levels.
If you’re really struggling with fatigue, get help
If you’re a woman who’s juggling all the things all the time, it’s no wonder you’re tired. The good news is that we’ve got more tips on how to feel more rested during the day, even if you can’t sleep.
Sleep is important, but it shouldn’t be something that causes more stress. If you’re always tired, try making the small, everyday changes Dr Jill recommends above. But if you’re doing everything to look after yourself and still feel exhausted, it’s important to see a doctor.
“If you think you're more tired than you should be, don't sit on it,” Dr Jill stresses. “Do something about it. Talk to your GP – it might well be something fixable.”
- What is mindfulness and how do I get started?
- What is meditation and what are the benefits?
- What causes stress and how do you deal with it?
- Why is mental wellbeing important, and how can I help improve mine?
Dr Jill Gamberg is a General Practitioner and one of the first Australian Lifestyle Medicine Physicians whose goal is to help prevent disease and maintain wellness with evidence-based practice, and to passionately improve health literacy.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board June 2021