For most of us, it’s been quite a harrowing year, and maybe the hits are still coming. With so many changes and tough situations to traverse, it’s understandable if you’re feeling full-on tired and the mental fatigue has kicked in. According to nutritionist and Parsley Health coach Olivia Hensal, feeling chronically stressed contributes to energy dips and mental fatigue—often, we don’t even realize these physiological changes are happening.
Persistent stress leads our body’s stress system (known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis) to remain on high alert, usually for some time. This means our bodies are constantly dealing with a cascade of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Over time, we feel both tired and wired, becoming exhausted before we even begin our days (along with experiencing other unhealthy stress-caused complications).
Even during relatively stable times, our energy levels can naturally wax and wane. For many people, energy dips in the afternoons. One reason? Eating a pro-inflammatory, hard-to-digest breakfast or lunch. Think power bars and processed meats, such as sausage, bacon, and ham. While chipping away at chronic stress isn’t exactly simple, there are many straightforward ways you can combat low energy and mental fatigue—in the moment and through developing healthier daily habits. Start boosting your energy with the below eight tips.
Eat energy-supplying foods
Again, when the clock strikes 2 p.m., if all you want to do is curl up on the couch and sleep for hours, your breakfast may have something to do with it. “The biggest things in terms of breakfast to maintain energy levels throughout the day are soluble fiber, healthy fats, and proteins,” says Hensal. For example, she says, on some days, you could eat hot oats with nut butter (such as almond butter), walnuts, cinnamon, and your favorite berries. On other days, you might savor an egg and vegetable-packed frittata.
For lunch, choose foods that increase oxygen levels in your blood—key for sparking or sustaining energy. This might include dark leafy greens, like kale or spinach, legumes, lentils, grass-fed meats, avocado, and fruit, says Hensal. When picking out energy-boosting foods, remember to also prioritize taste: Eat foods that you genuinely enjoy. It’s not just helpful for improving your energy and combating mental fatigue; it’s also an important way to honor your needs (and add to your overall satisfaction).
Stay well hydrated
Many of us simply don’t drink enough water on a regular basis. In fact, mild dehydration can cause fatigue, brain fog, mental fatigue, and headaches. Dehydration can even sink your mood. Not having enough water in our system is problematic on the most basic cellular level, says Hensal: “Seventy percent of our body is water.” Our cells, organs, and tissues require water to function properly and optimally.
To ensure you’re drinking enough, Hensal recommends this rule of thumb: Divide your body weight in half and drink half that amount in ounces. “For example, if you weigh 150 lbs., you want to have 75 ounces of water,” she says. If you don’t love the taste of water or just forget to drink up, try these tips from Hensel, which have been especially helpful for Parsley members:
- Add your favorite fruits or veggies, such as raspberries, blackberries, or cucumbers
- Add a splash of lemon juice
- Try a water-reminding app or put up post-its for a gentle nudge
Go for low-intensity exercise
Regular exercise increases blood flow, delivering more oxygen to our brain and tissues. It also has a positive effect on sleep, says Hensal, by helping you fall asleep faster and sleep better (which, in turn, boosts your energy during the day). Plus, exercise releases feel-good, energy-boosting endorphins.
If possible, Hensal says, try “exercising between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. when your metabolism and body temperature are at their highest peak, so you’ll get the most out of your workout physiologically.” To experience an energy boost, skip the high-intensity workout in favor of low-intensity exercise, like a walk around the park, a 20- to 30-minute yoga session, or a brisk jog, says Hensal. Even if you are feeling low energy, get up and go.
High-intensity exercise causes fatigue in several ways (and might be extra exhausting when you’re already, well, exhausted). For starters, as Hensal points out, “High-intensity exercise relies on anaerobic pathways, which operate without oxygen, to supply your muscles with ATP, an energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things. Multiple by-products build up during the anaerobic production of ATP, including lactate and hydrogen ions, which both can contribute to muscle fatigue.”
An intense workout also causes neural fatigue, says Hensal: When certain neurotransmitters tell our muscle fibers to contract during exercise, our system fatigues. Muscle contraction, she adds, also can become less efficient, leading to burnout. Some research has shown that low-intensity exercise reduced fatigue symptoms by 65 percent. Another study found that low-intensity exercise decreased study-related fatigue in college students and improved their sleep quality.
“Most people are breathing really intensely or shallowly…making us more stressed biologically,” says Hensal. On the flip side, slow, controlled breathing can lead to an increase of oxygen in our blood, which leads to more energy. Deep breathing also can lead to greater cerebral oxygen delivery, possibly improving cognitive ability, according to this model.
What’s more, says Hensal, deep breathing “can increase activity in the cortical and subcortical structures of our brain. These changes, in turn, can lead to psychological outputs such as increased alertness, reduced anxiety, and increased comfort and relaxation.” Deep breathing is so important that Hensal recommends it to all the Parsley members she works with.
You can practice deep breathing techniques throughout the day, especially when you are feeling low energy and any time you need an extra boost. Hensal’s favorite exercise is alternate nostril breathing. To practice, start by sitting comfortably and repeat the below for 3 to 5 minutes:
- Put your left hand on your lap.
- Close your eyes.
- Take several deep breaths, in and out of your nose.
- Using your right thumb, close your right nostril. Slowly inhale through your left nostril.
- Using your ring finger, close the left nostril.
- Open the right nostril and exhale.
- Inhale through the right nostril and then close it.
- Opening the left nostril, exhale slowly.
When you first start, Hensal suggests hanging reminders around your space to remember to breathe intentionally.
Add positive affirmations
Pairing your breathwork with supportive statements can further help combat low energy, mental fatigue, and reduce stress. According to Hensal, a positive affirmation might sound like:
- “I have plenty of energy to get me through the day and live my life to the fullest.”
- “I have the mental capacity to accomplish all the things I’d like to accomplish.”
To create a personally meaningful affirmation, think about what you’re struggling with the most and create a statement that gives you what you need.
Make time for play
Another great way to recharge and combat burnout and mental fatigue is to engage in playful activities, says Hensal. Since play is personal, think about what specifically inspires you and feels fun.
For instance, you might draw, paint, dance, bake, or spend time in nature. And if you’re pressed for time, remember that it doesn’t take much to recharge and re-energize. Even 10 minutes of genuine play counts. For an extra energy (and mood!) boost, take playful activities outside: Sunlight may increase the release of serotonin, known as the “happiness hormone.” Being outside may also help you to feel more alive.
Outsource what you can
Trying to manage it all can lead to mental fatigue (not to mention physical fatigue as well). Lighten your load by delegating responsibilities to other members of your household, whether that’s your spouse, kids, or roommate. Or consider which services you might hire out, such as house cleaning. You can also streamline some chores, like using meal kits on some nights or ordering groceries online.
In general, it’s helpful to think through your daily and weekly tasks at work and at home. What is essential to keep your household running? What matters most to you that only you can do? What professional tasks are truly non-negotiable? Which can you delegate to someone else?
Pinpoint the problem
In addition to combating common energy-siphoning factors, it’s also critical to determine your individual triggers. Take some time to reflect on what else in your life is draining your energy, says Hensal.
Start by reviewing your day and reevaluating your job and relationships. You might realize that you need to set boundaries with your boss or end a relationship that isn’t serving you, she says. After a bit of self-reflection, you also might find that some of your habits aren’t helpful—such as drinking too much coffee, checking email alllll the time, saying yes to everything, multitasking, and hyper-focusing on the negative. Try to reduce these less-than-healthy habits, making sure to treat yourself with kindness and understanding along the way.
Working with a clinician and health coach, like those at Parsley Health, can also help you put some of these lifestyle practices into action and optimize your overall health for better energy and mental clarity.
When your fatigue won’t go away
In some cases, no matter what energy-boosting strategies you try, you may still be exhausted. That’s when it’s important to dig deeper to pinpoint the root cause of your mental fatigue—something Hensal and Parsley Health coaches regularly help members with.
For example, fatigue may result from sleep apnea, nutritional deficiencies, and thyroid disease (and other underlying reasons). Identifying why you’re tired all the time, despite doing all the “right” things, not only boosts your energy; it boosts your overall health and wellness.