How to ACTUALLY Increase Your Energy Levels: A Comprehensive Guide

By on February 5, 2018

Do you find that you are constantly feeling tired and worn out? Do you wish you could fit more into a day, but you just don’t have anything left in the tank?

Then this post is for you!

I researched and wrote this topic because I was feeling similar. And I looked online for advice and what I found was… essentially the same article over and over again. The tips were all the same ‘exercise’, ‘get better sleep’, ‘try eating a banana’. None of this is bad advice, but if you’re someone who is suffering with ‘21st century syndrome’ then it’s hardly going to change your world.

So, my aim was to look a little deeper and to try and find some of the less common advice for those who want to improve their energy levels. And here is what I found…

Biological Rhythms

One of the most common tips for boosting energy is to get more high quality sleep. That’s not wrong, but unfortunately many of us are left with little option regarding sleep. We are either blessed or not in the sleep quality department and the hours we spend in bed are likely determined for us by other factors. We can do our best to moderately increase sleep quality and quantity, but that will result in moderate benefits.

Sleep Timing

But what you may not have considered is your sleep timing. In other words: the window of time you spend in bed. Here in the UK, I actually feel slightly more awake when the clocks go forward, and it gets darker in the mornings. I’m naturally a night owl, and so simply by going to bed later and getting up later, I will often feel better – even with the same amount of sleep.

But we can change the precise hours we sleep ourselves. So, if you’re very tired despite getting a consistent 8 hours a night, then it may be time to try going to bed a little earlier or a little later. Some of us are night owls and some of us are morning larks. If you can find which you are and then adjust your sleep schedule to fit, you might find this makes a difference. This is called your ‘chronotype’ and in one study, it was found that performance in a 100 meter race could vary by as much as 26% based on the time of day and whether that suited the athlete’s chronotype (report). This also suggests that you could benefit by putting your most ‘energy expensive’ tasks at the right time of day.

Sleep Less?

It’s also possible to get too much sleep and the ‘optimal’ amount can actually vary from person to person. If you often wake up groggy (this is called ‘sleep inertia’), then it may actually be beneficial to try reducing the amount you are sleeping slightly. I guess the main takeaway here is ‘play with the variables’ and this can make a huge difference.

Fun fact: Did you know that there is a rare genetic mutation that allows some people to function well with less sleep? This is a mutation on the DEC2 gene, which occurs only very rarely in humans (report). Perhaps in the future, this might be available to all of us through gene doping.

Meal Timings

In fact, even changing the time you eat might help you to sleep better at night, or to have more energy in the evenings. Our biological rhythms are set by a combination of ‘external zeitgebers’ (external cues) and ‘internal pacemakers’. Among these is the time that we eat – which is actually why changing meal times is one strategy used to try and help athletes cope with jet lag when they play games overseas.

The timing of your meal will control the release of serotonin, which converts into melatonin – the sleep hormone – in the brain. In fact, it has been suggested by one theory that our culture ‘evolved’ to eat dessert last because the release of sugar would help to get us ready for sleep.

If nothing else, eating a big meal puts you in a tired state, as does sitting down and taking that ‘break’ out of your routine. If you want more productive evenings, then a simple but very effective tip is to not sit down to dinner until you’ve crossed the most pressing items off of your list.

Wake Therapy

To demonstrate that more isn’t always better, consider ‘wake therapy’. This is a technique that is used to treat depression and more recently it has also been shown to be effective in boosting energy levels. The subject simply stays awake for one entire night and the next day. Some people report that this then results in a kind of energy boost the next day (even though they are sleepy), along with a reduction in the symptoms of depression. Some participants state that the benefits then continue to last subsequently.

If you think this might help you, then I recommend speaking with your GP first. It’s certainly interesting though.

SAD

Morning Sunshine

There is something else that helps us to set our biological rhythms and that plays a large role in our feelings of wakefulness – the sun.

Sunlight increases the release of cortisol, which we know as the stress hormone but which also plays a number of other significant and important roles in the human body. Cortisol helps us to clear out melatonin and gives us the energy we need to wake up. Cortisol also increases as our blood sugar decreases, so this is our body’s way of telling us it’s time to wake up and go look for food!

We already mess up our energy levels to a great degree by staring at phone screens and computers right before bed. This stimulates the release of cortisol and makes us want to do anything but go to sleep.

But likewise, we also wake up all wrong. Most of us wake up in pitch blackness with the curtain drawn, startled awake by our alarms. That sound – which would never occur naturally – is enough to trigger a sudden release of cortisol. But because the curtains are drawn and it’s dark out, you’ve been pulled into wakefulness from what was probably a deep and otherwise-restorative sleep.

Is it any wonder you feel sick and groggy? It’s like sleep whiplash!

One solution to this problem is to try using a daylight alarm. I use one from a company called Lumi and this basically gets gradually brighter to simulate a sunrise in the morning. The light is also much brighter and closer to the wavelength of the sun.

The end result? I wake into a natural-feeling light room from a light sleep. I highly recommend a device like this to anyone and even my wife – who was sceptical at first – now says she feels awful comparatively waking up without it.

Sun Exposure

Sun exposure during the day also has a number of additional benefits. It further helps you to keep that biological clock in-check for instance, and it likewise triggers the production of vitamin D. While this is called a vitamin, vitamin D actually has more in common with a prohormone, meaning that it regulates the release of other hormones in your body – including things like testosterone and DHEA.

During the winter months, we will often not get enough sunlight and this can trigger a condition known as SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder.

The solution then, is to try and spend more time in the sun. Even if it is cloudy out, go for a walk or a run outdoors, drive less and generally make sure that you aren’t spending all-day cooped up in a dark office.

Have you ever noticed how people who spend all day outside (you know: ‘outdoors people’) seem to have an unlimited supply of energy and enthusiasm? That’s probably no coincidence.

To give yourself a helping hand, you can also try supplementing with a little extra vitamin D when you wake up.

Breathing

If you want a ‘quick fix’ that can have potentially profound benefits, then fixing your breathing should definitely be on your to-do list.

If you are feeling tired right now then just try to calm down your breathing. This sends powerful signals to your autonomic nervous system to calm down and will slow your heart rate and open up your blood vessels.

But it will also better oxygenate your brain, helping you to feel more awake and alert and it will improve your mood – further boosting your energy levels.

Specifically, you should be breathing through your belly. Belly breathing means that you start by opening up your abdominal cavity (letting your belly hang out) to allow the diaphragm to drop into the space. This then opens up the bottom of the lungs to allow you to hold more air.

Actually though, you’re going to be aiming to breathe less and the reason for this is that it will help you to not only achieve a state of calm but also bring more oxygen to your brain. That may sound counterintuitive, but actually, over-oxygenating your blood is just as damaging as not breathing enough.

Carbon dioxide helps the organs and tissues to use more oxygen. Our red blood cells are almost always saturated with oxygen. Taking in more oxygen by breathing ‘bigger’ doesn’t actually help all that much. The Bohr effect tells us that carbon dioxide is used in order to release oxygen from the red blood cells so that our bodies can use it.

When you breathe ‘big’ through your mouth, you actually lose too much carbon dioxide, meaning that the oxygen stays bound to the haemoglobin. This is what we describe as ‘over breathing’ and it tends to coincide with shallower, faster and more irregular breath. Deep breathing is not the same as ‘big’ breathing. Slow and steady is the aim and this will also send clearer signals to your vagus nerve to stay calm and relaxed. Breathing steadily will improve your heartrate variability and your ‘coherence’.

Part of the solution is to breathe through the nose. This helps us to filter the oxygen as it comes in, it helps us to increase nitric oxide – which both wakes us up and helps us deliver more oxygen and blood to the brain and muscles – and it encourages us to take in the right amount of oxygen. Breathing through the nose in childhood may lead to the development of more objectively ‘attractive’ facial features. It also appears to be correlated with IQ. As adults, nasal breathing through the belly can help us to keep stress at bay, to reduce tension in the shoulders and neck and to increase energy levels. During exercise, nasal breathing may help us to outperform mouth breathers. The Tarahumara tribe – noted for running huge distances every day – are well known for their nasal breathing (as well as their barefoot running).

Better yet, nasal breathing while sleeping helps us to wake up feeling more energetic and rejuvenated. Concentrating on correct breathing techniques during the day, taking five minutes to practice correct breathing in the morning, or even taping over your mouth while you sleep could all help you to feel calmer and more energetic.

Wim Hof

Others have found great success with the Wim Hof method, which is something I’m currently in the process of looking into. Essentially, this involves taking 30 deep inhalations and then holding your breathe as long as you can, followed by a ‘recovery breath’. This has the exact opposite effect to nasal breathing in that it depletes CO2 and actually triggers an acute fight or flight response, which is then calmed back down by the breath hold at the end. This can help people get a shot of energy to start their day and even increase their physical performance – breaking their press up records and the like. I’ll be discussing this more in future.

I highly recommend checking out the TED talk by Patrick McKeown for more on this subject, or reading his book The Oxygen Advantage.

But either way, pay some attention to your breath and it may improve your energy levels and health.

Cardio

You know what will really boost your ability to get oxygen around your body though?

Improving your fitness! Improving your cardio fitness will increase your VO2 max, meaning that you can use more oxygen in less time. It will strengthen your heart and enlarge your left ventricle, which will slow your heart rate and help you to feel calmer. It will even increase the number and the quality of your mitochondria – the ‘energy factories’ in our cells that allow us to make use of glucose. It has been theorized that the difference in energy levels between young children and elderly adults is largely down to differences in mitochondria.

HIIT (high intensity interval training) will most drastically increase VO2 max, while steady state long distance will lower your resting heartrate and increase the size of your left ventricle. Both can improve mitochondrial density. You’re best off using a combination of the two.

Likewise, losing weight will mean you have less weight to move around and you will find it even easier to circulate blood and oxygen.

Training means enduring the toughest conditions so that ‘every day’ conditions become easy to cope with. If you can easily endure a 10 mile run, then you should find that the commute to work is child’s play.

If you’re already tired and burned out, chances are you won’t feel like adding intense bouts of cardio to your day. But in fact, this is when it becomes most important.

This is the ‘obvious’ answer that no one ever mentions. It’s not an ‘easy shortcut’ by any stretch and that’s what puts a lot of people off. If you really want to increase your energy, then make the effort to engage in activities that are known to boost energy.

Supplements and Nutrition

Just as increasing your fitness will of course boost your energy levels, so too will eating a healthy diet. I’m not going to go into a massive detail on this front, but as well as ensuring you’re getting good energy sources through your food (complex carbs for instance), you also need to ensure that you are getting enough of the most beneficial nutrients that can help to improve your energy systems, provide you with the necessary neurotransmitters and hormones etc. This is why we tend to perform better in the gym in the latter half of the day: because we’ve built up a supply of glycogen and blood glucose to power us through.

For example, consuming eggs will provide you with choline to produce more acetylcholine, which is a key excitatory neurotransmitter. Consuming the good kind of cholesterol will help you to increase your testosterone and DHEA.

I’ve talked in the past about how you can use cordyceps sinensis likewise to reduce adrenal fatigue and what we call ‘21st century syndrome’. This can also improve our ability to use ATP. Speaking of which, creatine can work wonders for energy levels, as can lutein. Vitamin C makes me feel much better: it aids recovery and boosts the feel-good hormone serotonin. And we’ve already seen why vitamin D is important.

The point here is not that you should buy this supplement or that supplement. It’s that you should eat well. It makes a difference.

Emotion

One of the biggest things that we often forget is the role of emotion in our energy. More specifically: when you are feeling enthusiastic and excited, you will find yourself with huge reserves of energy. When you love what you are doing, you’ll find it that much easier to jump out of bed.

And conversely, what many of us think of as being exhausted and tired is actually just us being stressed and possibly depressed.

The best way to think about this – I find – is to compare it with alcohol sobriety. Have you ever been at a party or on a night out and felt very drunk, only to sober up significantly because someone has had an accident, or gotten into a fight?

Point is, our brain has a way of ‘waking itself up’ when something important is happening. And that’s why, when you’re passionate about what you do and you’re excited to get out of bed in the morning, you will have no problem finding the motivation to push through any tiredness.

Another way to understand this is to look at someone like Dwayne Johnson, Will Smith or Arnold Schwarzenegger. They have achieved so much and partly it’s because they have seemingly relentless energy. Can you even imagine one of those guys having an off-day where they just don’t want to get out of bed?

Of course, there will be times when you have to do things you don’t love, but try to design your life to minimize those scenarios. And moreover, try to find the most exciting and interesting aspects of whatever it is you are doing in order to feel more switched on and engaged.

Stress

Did you know that many of the symptoms we associate with tiredness are actually just symptoms of stress? Being over tired triggers physiological stress and that is a big part of why we feel moody, distracted, dried out and sluggish (among other things). This is why it’s so ironic when we feel stressed about being tired. Often the best way to cope with tiredness is simply to decide not to let it bother you.

At the same time, emotional stress can be incredibly draining and is one of the biggest reasons you feel so tired when you get home. The worst culprit here is actually social interaction (and this goes double for introverts among you).

Finding ways to reduce stress is one thing and yes, CBT and meditation can help. In fact, meditation will even raise testosterone levels, increasing your performance in the gym! But better yet is to reduce the things causing that stress. If you are constantly getting home and feeling exhausted, then maybe your job is causing you more stress than you should be willing to expect? Maybe the commute is more stressful than it could be?

Energy is Finite

Recognize this: energy is finite. Many of us bemoan not having enough time in our days and we claim that if only we had more time, we would probably be able to do more.

But now take a moment to reflect: is that really true? Or are you in fact finding plenty of time to watch box sets, browse Facebook and waste time on YouTube? There’s your time, right there!

The reason you’re not being more productive with that time is because you are burned out. So if you want to start doing something new – be that a new training program or starting a new business – then consider stopping something else.

And if you’re tired all the time? Consider doing just a bit less. Remember: down time and recovery is crucial if you’re going to perform your best at any time.

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.