If you suffer with PMS, irregular periods, heavy or painful periods, difficulty losing weight, acne or any other period problem I am going to take a good guess and say you are pretty tired as well. Scratch that. Pretty tired probably doesn’t do it justice. You are exhausted.
Life feels overwhelming. Some days you have no idea how you make it through the day and accomplish everything you do. It is like you put your superwoman pants on and away you go without much connection or enthusiasm for the tasks you have to do, before crumpling on the sofa at the end of the day and crawling into bed by 9pm. This is your life on repeat.
Now you might be thinking, why does low energy go hand in hand with period problems (and no, I am not psychic). Firstly, every woman I have seen in my clinic, energy is a problem (so I have a slight advantage there) and secondly, fatigue is the hallmark of something going on with your hormones. See the endocrine system that controls your hormones controls your energy production as well, so if the endocrine system isn’t working well, your energy production isn’t going to work well either.
What impacts your energy
1. Blood sugar imbalance
Too many carbohydrates, sugar, caffeine and/or alcohol can take us on a blood sugar rollercoaster meaning our blood sugar levels swing from high to low repeatedly all day. Low blood sugar can make us feel ‘hangry’, sluggish, tired and pretty rotten. It can also cause us to wake up in the early hours which impacts the quality and quantity of our sleep.
Consuming too many of the foods mentioned above impacts our energy in another way too. When we ingest too much of those foods, this spikes our insulin levels which is the hormone that deals with blood sugar levels. Too much glucose and insulin can prevent ovulation which limits the amount of progesterone produced. This can lead to oestrogen dominance which can cause fatigue too!
2. Melatonin production
Melatonin is the hormone that is produced in response to darkness and helps make us feel sleepy at night and improve the quality of our sleep. So as the sun goes down, our melatonin levels increase. However, the ‘sun’ doesn’t really go down anymore, because we replace natural light with artificial lighting and screens instead. This artificial light exposure means that our melatonin production is suppressed impacting our sleep quality. And we all know how crappy we feel after an awful night's sleep.
3. Stress a.k.a. cortisol
Cortisol is the yin to melatonin yang. Whilst melatonin peaks at night, cortisol peaks in the morning helping us to get out of bed and be motivated for our day. The issue comes when cortisol is overstimulated throughout the day constantly.
Cortisol is also our stress hormone which is produced as a survival mechanism whenever we perceive a threat. This used to be in the form of a Saber toothed tiger, but now we have lots of baby tigers running around like an angry boss, constant notifications, long to-do lists and screaming children. Too much cortisol production can put a strain on the adrenal glands which suppresses our energy and can also result in brain fog and a lower mood too!
4. Low nutrient status
Micronutrients are required for every single function in the body and without sufficient levels the body cannot run optimally. Vitamin B12 and iron are routinely associated with energy levels but all the B vitamins, magnesium, vitamin D and zinc (amongst others!) are all really important for ample energy.
5. Toxins and environmental chemicals
Increased exposure to toxins and chemicals in our environment puts an added strain on the liver. It requires an enormous amount of energy for the liver to detoxify. Imagine the liver like a funnel, everything going in the top needs to be detoxified and everything that comes out the bottom has been dealt with. So the more going in the top, the harder the liver has to work to make sure everything flows through efficiently. This pulls energy from other areas in the body so the higher your toxic load, the less energy you are likely to have.
Increased toxin levels can also damage our mitochondria which are the energy making powerhouses found in almost every cell.
6. Low thyroid function
The thyroid gland could be viewed like the body’s motor, much like an engine in a car. Without the engine, or the engine ticking over nicely, the car cannot move - and we are the same! An under functioning thyroid gland can cause the body to slow down which is often associated with low energy, difficulty losing weight as well as constipation or low mood.
How to boost your energy levels naturally
1. Address light exposure
We want to encourage production of cortisol in the morning and melatonin at night, and light exposure is a great way to do this! Increase your natural light exposure before noon so get outside as early as you can (even if it's cloudy), avoid wearing sunglasses and consider getting a lightbox for gloomy winter mornings.
We then want to shut down light exposure from noon onwards, being especially conscious 1-2 hours before bed. Try to establish a bedtime routine where all electronic devices are ‘put to bed’ 1-2 hours before your bedtime, dim your lighting and use blue light blocking glasses if you have to.
2. Manage stress
Prioritise daily self-care and activities that lower your stress load. Even just 5 or 10 minutes a day can make such a big impact on your stress and energy levels. This doesn’t have to be complicated, it could be as simple as doing a few stretches in the morning, getting out for a walk at lunch time or reading a book in the evenings.
This comes with a few caveats. Firstly, if you find exercise or the type of exercise you are currently doing fatigues you instead of energises you, then consider doing lower impact exercise such as walking or for shorter periods of time.
Also, with exercise, there can be too much of a good thing. Over exercising can actually have the opposite effect and cause more stress in the body, depleting you further.
That said, getting the heart pumping and enjoying regular exercise has been shown to reduce fatigue (1). Try to again make exercise or movement part of your daily habit. It could be small such as doing 60 seconds of jumping jacks, burpees, push ups and sit ups whilst the kettle boils, adding in a daily walk, or more lengthy work out sessions such as a gym class or long cycle ride. It doesn’t overly matter what it is as long as you enjoy it and it energises you rather than depletes you.
Take a load off the liver and the gut and reduce your exposure to toxins and environmental chemicals. The best way to do this is to opt for organic produce and make sure to drink filtered water. Reduce your plastic exposure and become a toxin detective when it comes to your beauty and cleaning products. The Think Dirty app and the EWG are good places to start.
How to use diet to manage energy
1. Put down the coffee
Coffee raises cortisol levels and puts an additional strain on the adrenal glands. It can also deplete micronutrients so there isn’t much to be celebrated here. We often think that caffeine gives us energy, and whilst it can give us a short term boost, it can actually cause us to slump later in the day and reduce our overall energy levels. Trust me, you will feel a lot more energetic after quitting the coffee - it might just take a few days to adjust!
2. Eat a nutrient dense breakfast
Breakfast really sets the tone for the rest of the day in terms of our blood sugar levels. Consuming a nutrient dense breakfast that includes good quality protein, healthy fats and some starchy carbohydrates can help to keep our energy levels up. Our carbohydrate requirements change throughout our menstrual cycles so focus on less carbohydrates in the follicular phase and a little more during the luteal phase.
3. Ramp up on micronutrients
Taking a supplement is an easy way to ensure you are getting all the nutrients your body needs, however supplements really should be a ‘supplement’ to your diet, not the main event.
Eating a broad and varied diet, full of lots of colourful plant based food is the best way to ramp up your micronutrient status.
B vitamins really are the star of the show when it comes to energy production. They are required by almost every function in the body so when you are deficient you can really feel it. B6 and B12 are particularly important and whole-food sources such as grass-fed beef, eggs, salmon, dark leafy greens and wholegrains are a great way to up your intake.
Magnesium is another super hero when it comes to energy. Not only is it great for dialing down stress and aiding sleep, it is also heavily required by our mitochondria to produce more energy in the form of ATP, which is the body’s energy currency. Magnesium rich foods include dark leafy greens, pumpkin seeds and 70%+ dark chocolate or cacao.
Another vital nutrient for our mitochondria is vitamin D, and deficiency has been associated with fatigue (2). Vitamin D helps to improve muscle function which enhances the activity of our mitochondria. The best source of vitamin D is the sun, so make sure to get your levels checked in winter and supplement accordingly.
4. Don’t forget about hydration
The body is made up of mostly water so any dip in hydration the body will see as a threat, switching on the stress response, and impact every function and process in the body. It also impacts the flow of oxygen to the brain making the muscles work harder which causes you to feel less alert and fatigued.