Ask any woman the one thing she wants more of, and energy will most likely top her list. While getting more sleep would seem to be the obvious solution (Americans average seven hours of sleep a night), daytime exhaustion has a host of other, often surprising, causes — all of which are easily treated. “In many cases, low energy can be traced to a certain behavior and fixed in a few weeks,” says Martin Lipsky, MD, a professor and chair of the department of family medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Evanston Northwestern Healthcare. (If fatigue persists without explanation, however, talk to your doctor. It could be a sign of a more serious illness.)
Want to get your energy back? Here are 14 reasons why there’s less pep in your step, plus the easy fixes that will get you up and running. Your vitality makeover starts right now!
You Don’t Exercise
At least 30 minutes of a sweat-inducing workout during the day may help you sleep deeply, says Thomas E. Scammell, MD, an assistant professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. His research suggests the increase in body temperature during exercise activates sleep-producing cells in the brain.
Fit in half an hour of cardiovascular exercise four days a week, says Wil Maxton, a certified personal trainer and nutrition specialist in Philadelphia. Even a daily 30-minute walk in the morning or after dinner can raise your body temperature enough to improve your energy level and help you fall asleep. To give your heart a good workout, walk briskly while still being able to maintain a conversation. Keep in mind, though, that exercise also raises your metabolism, which can heighten alertness and interfere with sleep, says Dr. Scammell. Work out early in the day when possible, and if you have to exercise in the evening, wait at least three hours before going to bed.
You’re an Irregular Sleeper
If you’re getting up at the crack of dawn during the workweek, then sleeping in on weekends, you’re disrupting your body’s natural sleep schedule (or circadian rhythm). The more your patterns vary from day to day, the more tired you’ll become. Stay reasonably consistent in terms of when you go to bed and wake up to avoid throwing off your internal clock, says Dr. Scammell. Otherwise, you’re at risk for sleep deprivation. Research shows that an irregular wake-up time impacts daytime sleepiness more than an erratic bedtime does.
You’re Taking New Pills
If you’re using a new medication and your energy level has lowered, talk to your doctor about switching drugs or dosages. Over-the-counter and prescription drugs like antihistamines, antidepressants, pain medications, and beta-blockers can tire you even if drowsiness isn’t a listed side effect, says Dr. Lipsky.
Your Bedroom Isn’t Dark
You’ll sleep best when your room is very dark, says Samir Bangalore, MD, a medicine intern at Evanston Hospital in Illinois. Make sure blinds and curtains block intense light like streetlamps. (Low-intensity illumination such as a night-light is not likely to keep you awake.) In a recent study from Northwestern University, Dr. Bangalore found that people who were awakened in the middle of the night by bright light (such as a bathroom light) and kept awake for several hours had a shift in circadian rhythm, in essence giving them jet lag. The longer the exposure, the more the body’s natural clock was disturbed.
Dehydration causes your body to conserve energy by decreasing blood circulation. This deprives your muscles of oxygenated blood and causes you to become fatigued, Dr. Lipsky says. Even mild dehydration can make you feel lethargic. Symptoms include constipation; rough, dry skin; dry tongue, lips and mucous membranes; dark, strong-smelling urine; thirst; weakness; and fatigue. Be sure to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day. Your urine should be pale yellow, says Dr. Lipsky. If it’s not, keep drinking until the color changes. Replace lost fluids during a workout by having 4 to 6 ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes, advises Kristine Clark, PhD, RD, director of sports nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. Weigh yourself before and after you exercise, and drink 16 ounces (two cups) for every pound lost, she says.
Poor posture creates fatigue by causing muscles, ligaments, and joints to work harder than they do when your body is aligned correctly, says Scott Bautch, of the American Chiropractic Association. Experts estimate that looking down at a 45-degree angle uses five times more energy than holding your head in an upright position. The added strain on muscles also decreases blood (and oxygen) flow to your brain by as much as 30 percent, making you feel tired. To check your posture, draw an imaginary line from the middle of your ear through the center of your shoulder andhip. Or have someone take a photo of you from the side — bad posture is easy to spot. Correct your slouch by strengthening back muscles. Try two sets of 20 shoulder rolls forward and backward twice a week.
It’s easy to ignore your itchy nose or nasal congestion. But left untreated, the annoying symptoms can cause fatigue, says Aimee Altschul, MD, a clinical allergist and immunologist in private practice at ENT and Allergy Associates and a clinical instructor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “Congestion, runny nose, and other symptoms can prevent you from falling asleep or staying asleep.” she says. Ease sniffles with remedies like the allergy drug Claritin, a once-a-day, nonsedating antihistamine that became available over-the-counter last December, or prescription-only daily-dose sprays such as Nasonex or Flonase. If conventional drugs don’t work, visit an allergist who can help you detect what you’re allergic to and how to treat it, says Dr. Altschul.
You’ve Got a Major Sweet Tooth
Simple sugars, found in soda, candy, cakes, and ice cream, may give you a quick boost of energy — but not a lasting one. These foods trigger a large output of insulin, which lowers blood sugar and leaves you feeling sluggish, according to Maxton. Eat fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which keep blood sugar levels steady.
You’re Under Pressure
Stress causes your body to release cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone. When released, it increases the fat and sugar in your bloodstream that your brain and muscles use for a quick burst of energy. After the anxiety has passed, your body returns to its normal state. When you’re under chronic stress, however, the hormone is released continuously, says Jim Lane, PhD, an associate research professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. Long-term exposure to elevated cortisol level leads to fatigue and a weakened immune system, he says. To reduce the physical impact of stress, focus on your breathing when tension starts to rise. Make sure your belly expands and your breath is coming from the lower abdomen. Inhale and exhale slowly. Deep breathing increases the oxygen in your bloodstream, which slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure and relaxes your muscles, thereby countering the fight-or-flight response.
You Drink Coffee or Soda
Caffeine can magnify your body’s response to stress. A study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that ingesting the caffeine equivalent of two to three 8-ounce cups of coffee significantly increases stress-hormone levels and blood pressure (just one cup may raise your blood pressure for the entire day). These effects might still be present at bedtime, preventing you from getting a sound sleep. Lane suggests drinking caffeinated beverages as early in the day as possible. “It can take 10 to 12 hours to eliminate it from your system, so have caffeine before noon,” he says.
Sleep apnea, a condition caused by soft tissues in your throat that obstruct your airway, can wake you several times during the night. You may be unable to stay in REM sleep, which slows body functions, relaxes muscles, and allows you to enter the lowest state of consciousness. Symptoms include snoring, morning headaches, memory problems, and irritability, according to Christin Engelhardt, executive director of the American Sleep Apnea Association. She suggests sleeping on your side or stomach. If this doesn’t help, or if these positions are uncomfortable, talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist about conducting a sleep disorders test.
You’re Iron Deficient
Nearly eight million adolescent girls and women of childbearing age in the United States suffer from iron deficiency. This can cause anemia, a condition that develops when normal stores of the mineral are depleted. Signs that you may be deficient include extreme fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, confusion or loss of concentration, dizziness or fainting, pale skin, rapid heartbeat, and feeling cold, sad, or depressed. If you might be anemic — particularly if you’re prone to heavy periods or are a vegetarian — get a blood test. Dr. Lipsky does not recommend iron supplements for healthy adult women unless they’re clinically deficient or pregnant.
People who feel isolated may have a harder time getting a good night’s sleep, according to a study in Psychological Science. Researchers found that individuals who described themselves as lonely woke more frequently during the night than those who felt socially fulfilled. Experts aren’t sure why the connection exists; still, “social interaction is one of the best ways to improve your mood and your sense of well-being,” says Robert Thayer, PhD, a professor of psychology at California State University at Long Beach. If you think loneliness may be the cause of your fatigue, Thayer recommends sharing your feelings with a friend, family member, or counselor. Even a quick phone call can help you feel more connected to the people you love.
Energy loss and chronic fatigue are common symptoms of depression, a condition that may be characterized by poor sleep, hormonal changes, or tension, says Dr. Lipsky. Other signs include feelings of extreme sadness, anxiety, or guilt, poor concentration, loss of appetite or overeating, an inability to sleep or to stop sleeping, and suicidal thoughts. If you’ve been experiencing symptoms and have been unable to sleep soundly for two weeks or more, visit your doctor. For more information, visit the National Institute of Mental Health Web site at nimh.nih.gov.