Some days it feels like you have the energy to conquer the world. Other days you can hardly get yourself out of bed.
What’s going on?
Why does your body come equipped with fatigue?
Your body creates energy from its environment. It’s a rather remarkable process. Just like plants absorb sunlight and turn it into energy through photosynthesis, the human body extracts energy from food, combines it with the air you breathe and creates energy.
When there’s an interruption in the energy production cascade, you’ll feel tired. Let’s look at some of the most common causes of why you feel tired all the time!
The energy equation
For generations, your ancestors struggled to consume enough calories to keep them alive. A surplus of food has only occurred for the past couple of generations.
The constant threat of starvation resulted in adaptations to your energy-production machinery. These adaptations helped ensure the survival of your ancestors. But in today’s modern world, what was once an adaptation is quickly becoming a burden.
How you eat for energy
Your body combines the food you eat (glucose) with the air you breathe (oxygen) and through a complex cascade of chemical reactions creates ATP (energy). It’s an incredible process fueled entirely by the mitochondria in your cells! Let’s break down what happens on a given day inside your body’s power plants.
Each of you has a calorie set-point. What I mean by that is there is a baseline level of calories your body needs to eat on a given day in order to sustain its basic functions.
If you eat more calories than your body needs in a day, those calories are stored until they’re needed. Your body was trained to do this through generations of not having enough to eat so it is incredibly easy to store the calories – and gain weight.
If you don’t eat enough calories, you force your body to access the energy it stored away for a rainy day. When this happens, your body uses the extra calories that have been stored as body fat and you lose weight.
Now, back to the calorie set-point. In medical lingo, this is called your basal metabolic rate or BMR. Your BMR describes how many calories your body needs to perform basic tasks like breathing, keeping your heart beating, digesting your food and so on. If you’re more active, you need more calories. As well, the more you weigh the more calories you require.
How does this relate to feeling tired all the time?
We’ll explore the answer below!
A logical reason for feeling tired
One of the most straightforward reasons you feel tired all the time is not eating enough food to fulfill your daily energy needs. An accidental low-calorie diet is a common reason you feel tired all the time.
That fatigue or tiredness you experience when starting a diet is due to a lowered level of caloric intake. You’re eating less food – and therefore creating less energy – than your body and brain is used to. In an attempt to preserve energy, your brain has an incredible adaptation – fatigue.
When you don’t eat enough, your brain prevents you from expending more energy by making you feel tired. If you are consistently not eating enough calories (even by a small amount) you’re going to feel tired all the time.
In an era when humans were hunter-gatherers, this was an incredible adaptation. Fatigue or tiredness prevented your ancestors from starving. It encouraged napping over heavy lifting. Since you’re here reading this article, that adaptation clearly worked. And it worked well.
But today, you experience this life-saving adaptation as feeling tired all the time. It’s frustrating. So, check your BMR, if you’re eating too little in a day, amp up your food intake. It could be the secret to getting more energy!
A strange reason for feeling tired
However, unless you’re on a weight loss program or are changing to a new diet like keto, your fatigue is probably not due to a lack of calories. Given the obesity levels in the world today, odds are your problem has more to do with too many calories than too little. It’s a calorie quagmire humans are in these days.
You see, for hundreds of thousands of years, your ancestors struggled to obtain enough food to survive. That’s a long period of time and a lot of evolutionary pressure put on genes. During that time, nature selected genes that could survive on low-calorie diets for long periods of time. These are the genes that you possess today.
These genes have evolved/adapted to thrive on low-calorie diets. When you start feeding them too many calories, the efficiency of your energy-producing machines (mitochondria) starts to sputter. When that happens, energy production wanes and you start to feel tired.
It’s a rather unfortunate case of irony facing modern human populations. After working so hard to ensure there was always enough food to eat so we aren’t tired, we’ve now taken it to the extreme. Eating ourselves into feeling tired all the time.
The caloric quagmire
I hope I’ve painted a clearer picture of the genetic mismatch facing humans today. Your genes evolved to thrive in a caloric deficit. But not too much of a deficit. If you eat too much or too little, you’ll feel tired all the time. It’s a fine balance between energy in (the food you eat) and energy out (the exercise/movement you do each day).
This is the caloric quagmire humans are currently in. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, it’s incredibly frustrating. It can feel like you’re tired whether you practice intermittent fasting or if you eat when you’re hungry.
What is one to do?
How to eat if you feel tired all the time
The simple answer is to not eat too much or too little food. Be like Goldilocks, eat food portions that are just right. Obviously, that’s not a helpful recommendation. So, let me give you some dietary changes that will most certainly put an end to your constant fatigue.
1. Eat real food
I cannot stress the importance of this simple but rarely followed fact. For hundreds of thousands of years, your ancestors ate fruit, veggies, and meat. They did not have access to Twinkies, pop, or Twizzlers.
If you feel tired all the time, you need to stop eating refined or processed foods. Your mitochondria have not evolved to use these foods for fuel. If you force your mitochondria to run on refined foods, you’re going to feel tired. All the time.
The simple rule I tell my patients to ask is:
Does it rot?
If it rots, then it’s real food and I recommend eating it. But if it can sit on your shelves for weeks or months, that’s a refined food. It will make you tired. Do not eat it.
To better help you make dietary changes, I’ve laid out the best foods to avoid if you’re tired as well as the ideal diet to follow for chronic fatigue. Both of these can feel like radical changes. And radical changes are unsustainable.
I’ve created a program to help you find out exactly which foods make you feel tired and which foods give you energy. It puts an end to radical, unsustainable change. And it teaches you a way to create your own, personalized nutrition plan. All without having to exert tremendous amounts of willpower. You can learn more about that course here.
2. Get more calories from healthy fats
North Americans get more than 60% of their daily calories from carbohydrates. Your paleolithic ancestors likely got less than 30% of their calories from carbs. And in all likelihood, they probably got more like 5-10% of their daily calories from carbohydrates.
In the Paleolithic era carbohydrates came from fruits and veggies (and maybe a few grains). In this era, fruits and veggies were not available year-round like they are now. If your ancestors inhabited Europe or North America, fruits and veggies would have likely been available for only 1-3 months of the year.
The rest of the year, calories had to come from fat and protein sources. When you’re getting the majority of your calories from fat, you force your body into a ketogenic state. In all likelihood, your ancestors spent a great deal of their time in ketosis. Which means there’s a high likelihood that your genes have adapted to thrive on a high-fat, low-carb or keto diet.
But starting a keto diet is tough work. Instead of radically altering your nutrition, start by eating more healthy fats. Opt for nuts, seeds, olives, or avocados as a snack. Drop the potato chips and ice cream. Whenever possible, use fat as your fuel. Your mitochondria will thank you.
3. Restrict your calories (but not all the time)
This is the least intuitive. For your whole life, you’ve been told – ad nauseam – to eat three meals a day. Or, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
In reality, you’ll stop feeling tired all the time if you eat less than three meals each day and regularly skip breakfast.
It all comes back to your mitochondria. Remember, these amazing powerplants evolved to make energy over thousands and thousands of years of calorie restriction. They do their best work when there’s a slight deficit in calories. Your mitochondria (and you!) get tired and sluggish when they’re well fed.
In order to stop feeling tired all the time, you need a Goldilocks level of calories. Too few calories and you’ll run the risk of feeling tired all the time. Too many calories and you’ll gain weight and get fatigued.
Maintaining a Goldilocks level of caloric intake isn’t as complicated as you think. Below, I’ll show you the formula needed to optimize your calorie intake and thus amp up your energy.
Your calorie optimization formula
Calculate your daily caloric needs. This can be done through a simple formula like the Harris-Benedict equation.
Track the food you eat for 3-5 days. Include both a weekday and a weekend. Ensure the amount you’re eating each day is close to your BMR. At this stage, try to be within 300 calories of your BMR. Apps like Cronometer or My Fitness Pal work great for calorie tracking.
Add one or two intermittent fasting days to your week. Think of fasting like weight training. You don’t squat 500lbs on your first day at the gym. You slowly build up to heavier weights. Same goes for fasting. Don’t start with a 4-day fast. Start with one or two days of intermittent fasting each week. Fast on non-workout days. Opt for a bulletproof coffee on fasting days.
Ditch refined foods. These foods are high in calories but very low in satiation. That’s why you can eat an entire bag of potato chips and still be hungry. Fatty foods like nuts have twice as many calories per gram as carby foods (and yes, even though potato chips are high in fat, it’s not the kind you want). So, opt for higher fat foods whenever possible. The increased calorie content of fatty foods will make you feel satiated.
If after implementing the above four steps, you still feel tired all the time, check out my course on how you can Stop Feeding Fatigue. What’s healthy for you may not be healthy for your friends or family. Food can be a sneaky reason you feel tired all the time. And it’s rarely looked at in conventional medicine!
Now, I want to hear from you!
What’s helped you stop feeling tired all the time?
Share your responses in the comments section below!
Also published on Medium.