Eight hidden factors that control your energy level

The biggest fitness-related problem people want to solve is, unsurprisingly, excess body fat. When I started this business I assumed that would be my reader’s main problem too. An experience I had back in 2016 made me re-think this assumption.

I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia, going on a day-long tour of five of the local temples- including the famous temple city of Angkor Wat.  My tour group consisted of about a dozen people- some young, some old, some thin, some overweight, some well-rested, and others not so much.  All of us had come a long way for this tour, and we were all excited for it. 

First, one girl had to go home early because she was hung over.  Then one woman stayed in the bus and skipped the second temple to conserve her energy for Angkor Wat.  Then a another couple left and took a cab home right before we got to the main attraction.  

When we did get to Angkor Wat, several more people sped through it so they could get back to their hotels and sleep.  And finally, we ended the tour by climbing a hill to watch the sunset from another temple- which two more people didn’t have the energy for.  

We had come all the way to Cambodia for this- and only half of us completed the tour.  

To me, this is a goddamned tragedy.  Your energy level isn’t just a productivity issue, or something you should work on so you can exercise more.  It affects everything you do.  That’s why I think everyone should make having enough energy a top priority in life.

In this article I’m going to expose eight potential saboteurs that could be throwing a monkey wrench into your body’s energy-gears.  And for each of those annoying little bastards, I’ll give you the one-two punch technique to fix it.  

Note: Eight new things to do is a lot, and I recommend only adding two new habits at a time.  To help you follow the advice in this article, I’ve created a Habit Change Cheat Sheet for you.  

Hydration

Yes, you need to drink water.  No, you’re probably not drinking enough.  Odds are that you’re in a chronic state of mild to moderate dehydration.  And that means not only low energy, but brain fog, overeating, a slowed metabolism, buildup of bodily toxins, and generally shitty moods.       

The fix: Drink a glass of water before every meal, as well as a glass every 2-3 hours.  Set a time on your phone if you have trouble keeping to this schedule.   

Light Cues

Your brain is largely dependent on light to set its circadian rhythm.  Merely being in bright lights tends to wake you up, while darkness will prime the brain for sleep.  Blue light- as in sky blue- is particularly important.

Much of the time, our tiredness occurs because our homes and workspaces are insufficiently well-lit.  On the flip side, if you have too much bright light hitting your eyes at night, that can cause difficulty getting to sleep by preventing your body from producing melatonin.  

The fix: First, install f.lux on your computer to darken and redden the screen at night.  Second, make a habit of getting outside and into the sun first thing every morning.  If it’s not that bright outside, use an artificial light source (preferably a blue one) to simulate bright sunlight. 

Blood Sugar and Insulin

When your blood sugar is high and insulin is low, you’ll have more energy than you know what to do with.  When insulin is high and blood sugar is low, you’ll be so tired you want to take a nap.  

So we want high blood sugar and low insulin, right?  Actually, it’s not that simple.  Your body produces insulin in response to elevated blood sugar, so spiking your blood sugar will produce a burst of energy, followed by a crash.  This is the main cause of the dreaded 3 PM crash from all those 5 Hour Energy commercials.  

So what you actually want is for your blood sugar to be at moderate levels- not too high, not too low.  Moreover, you want it to be stable, to avoid falling into that cycle of sugar rush and insulin crash.  

The fix:  Eat meals with a low glycemic load, so that the effect on blood sugar is both moderate and drawn out over several hours.  That means low to moderate amounts of slow-absorbing carbohydrates, as well as protein to stabilize your blood sugar.  Optionally, add cinnamon to your food to slow digestion so that the carbs absorb more slowly into your bloodstream.     

Caffeine

Caffeine can be your best friend or your worst enemy.  Now I know what you’re thinking- Caffeine is a stimulant.  More caffeine = more energy.  It’s right there in the name!

That’s true, but only up to a point.  There are four different ways caffeine can backfire on you.

First, if you consume too much caffeine, the side effects will outweigh the benefits.  You’ll get dizzy, your heart will start pounding like a drum, and you’ll actually feel tired as your body focuses most of its efforts on flushing that toxic stuff out of your system.

Second, caffeine is an appetite suppressant.  That can make it very useful for fat loss, but it can also cause you to under-eat and suffer from low blood sugar.  (Remember that last item?)  Bottom line: a bro’s gotta eat.

Third, caffeine wears off.  Similar to how food affects your blood sugar, it can put you into a cycle of “rush and crash” if you don’t spread it out enough.

Finally, caffeine can give you too much energy.  See, there’s this thing called the Yerkes-Dodson Law that says the amount of energy you want to have depends on what you’re doing.  For complex mental tasks like writing an article, you want to have just enough energy to be fully awake and alert.  

For very simple mental tasks, like writing an episode of Family Guy, you want to have a bit more energy, because those tasks require a bit less focus but benefit from having more energy to do them faster.  And finally, for physical tasks like working out, you’ll benefit from having lots of energy, and taking as much caffeine as you can without running into the overdose symptoms I mentioned earlier.

The fix:  Spread out your caffeine intake- at least an hour between servings.  Don’t drink caffeine in the last hour or two before a meal if that kills your appetite.  Remember the Yerkes-Dodson Law: consider what you’ll be doing for the next few hours, and how much energy you’ll want to have for that.

Most importantly, if you’re a chronic caffeine user, take a one-week break from caffeine to reset your tolerance. Afterward, start substituting some of your caffeine intake with less-addictive caffeine alternatives.

Stress and Cortisol

In moderation, stress is normal and healthy.  Without stress, we’d be overcome with apathy.  In excess, stress can either make you depressed and lethargic, or jumpy and nervous, neither of which are good.  It can also tank your testosterone levels- more on that in a bit.  

Cortisol is the main neurotransmitter associated with stress.  It’s not bad either, but many of us have too much of it throughout the day.  Ideally, your cortisol levels would be high in the morning and gradually fall throughout the day.  

Excess stress, and some nutrient deficiencies, can cause your cortisol levels to see-saw throughout the day.  Are you seeing a pattern here?  With cortisol, as with caffeine and insulin, see-sawing is bad, and a fair amount of stability is good.

So you need to do two things.  One, you need to stop stressing out.  And two, you need to address your biological needs so that your body produces the right amounts of cortisol at the right times, without see0-sawing.

The fix: To keep stress at bay, meditate for just two minutes every day. 

Mental fatigue

Just like your body, your brain can get fatigued when you work it for too long.  You can’t go at full steam all the time; you need to alternate exertion and relaxation.

Mental fatigue is also like physical fatigue in that it includes both global and local components.  When you exercise, you’re partly fatiguing your whole body, and partly fatiguing the specific muscles that you work.  That’s why we can work out six days a week, but still have to spend most of the week staring longingly at our calendars, looking forward to leg day.

Similarly, when your mind gets tired, that fatigue includes components that affect your whole brain, but some of the fatigue will be specific to the mental pathway you’ve been using.  Just like you can work out more often by rotating body parts, so can you get more mileage out of your brain by rotating tasks.  

The fix: Use the pomodoro technique.  Work for about 25 minutes, then rest for 5 minutes.  That’s one pomodoro.  After every three pomodoros, rest for half an hour.  After every one of these two-hour “blocks,” switch to a different kind of work for your next block.

This covers both types of mental fatigue.  The rests allow your brain to recover from the global fatigue, while the task-switching allows individual neural pathways to recover from localized fatigue.  

Posture

Try a quick experiment: stand straight up for a minute, with your head held high.  Then sit down for a minute, and really slouch down in your chair.  Take note of how you feel under both conditions.  

You’ll probably notice that you have more energy when you’re standing up.  Just as you can improve your mood by smiling, you can raise or lower your energy level by changing your posture.  And if you’re slumping down in your chair all day, that’s likely causing you some serious problems. 

The fix: First off, adjust your seating position to promote better posture.  Try raising or lowering your chair, desk, or computer screen.  Try sitting closer to or further from your desk.  Find your ideal position.  

Second, alternate sitting and standing throughout the day- you can time this with your pomodoros.  Since you have more energy when standing, you might want to stand for more demanding tasks, or ones that require quick thinking.  When I worked in sales, I would stand when I was making calls and sit when I was sending emails.  

Testosterone and Estrogen

Low testosterone will kill your energy level, and your sex drive along with it.  So can low estrogen.  Or high estrogen.  

Your body converts excess testosterone to estrogen, which means a) high testosterone isn’t a problem unless you’re juicing, and b) if you get your body producing enough testosterone, it will also produce enough estrogen.  

But if your estrogen is high, that signals your hypothalamus to reduce testosterone production.  Also, testosterone and estrogen are produced from the same precursor chemicals as cortisol, so excess stress will lower your sex hormone production by making your body prioritize cortisol over testosterone.

Complicated isn’t it?  All kinds of things can throw this part of your endocrine system out of whack, including poor/insufficient sleep, a crappy diet, stress, or environmental toxins.  

The fix: There are a lot of moving parts here. The two things that make the biggest difference, though, tend to be a) getting 7+ hours of high-quality sleep a night, in a totally dark bedroom, and b) eating healthy fats, especially animal fats, and especially in the evening. For more info, read my guide to getting a full night of testosterone-boosting sleep.

If your estrogen is high, eating cruciferous veggies like broccoli can help to lower it.  It’s very hard to tell if your estrogen is too high or too low though, as the symptoms can be very similar.  There’s simply no substitute for blood tests, and I recommend anyone seriously concerned about sex hormones or libido get a full hormone panel.  

Your energy level affects everything you do

There are few things that suck more than spending a whole day feeling run down and low on energy.  Okay Nickelback, sure, but low energy is a close second.

That’s why I’ve started offering sleep and lifestyle coaching alongside my other fitness coaching plans. If you want to get into the best shape of your life, my comprehensive coaching package includes help with optimizing your energy level. For those who want to direct all of their attenion towards building up their energy level, the “sleep well every night” coaching plan will address the problem with laser-like focus.

If you’re healthy and have a lot of energy, you’ll get more of everything out of life- think about how people like Richard Branson always seem to have 30 hours in the day.  But low energy can cause life to pass you by- even preventing you from fully enjoying some of life’s best experiences, like quality time with your family, or a bus tour in Cambodia. 

Your homework: pick two of the “fixes” from this article and start doing them.  Focus on them for at least a week before starting on two more of the “fixes” I’ve given you- after a month, you’ll have addressed the most culprits behind low energy.  And remember, having more energy means you’ll be better at everything you do.