3 Sneaky Ways To Beat Exhaustion & Burnout, From A Functional MD
When it comes to optimizing your energy levels, you may know it takes a bit more work than slugging a cup of coffee or three and calling it a day. A jolt of caffeine may work for the short term, sure, but for chronic exhaustion (and its relentless cousin, burnout)? It may take some proper lifestyle shifts to get your energy up to speed.
Amy Shah, M.D., double board-certified integrative medicine doctor and author of the new book I'm So Effing Tired, would agree: "Our fatigue and burnout problem is a lifestyle problem," she says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. But while much of the conversation centers around quality sleep and mindfulness practices (which do help, we should note!), she offers even more targeted ways for when that fatigue just won't let up.
Her go-to tips, below:
1. Eat gut-supporting foods.
We're big on gut health around here, so it's no surprise gut-supporting foods make it onto the list. But according to Shah, your gut and energy levels are inextricably linked. It all stems from chronic inflammation: "Inflammation is your immune system being activated," explains Shah. "[Your immune cells] are calling their friends and saying, 'Hey, we don't recognize this. We need help here.'" So all of your cells tune in to the threat in question—more often than not within the American population, that "threat" is processed, inflammatory foods that aren't so good for your gut.
"Your immune system is constantly talking to your gut bacteria, and they're making decisions all the time about what to do," adds Shah. When your gut microbiome is weakened, she says, inflammatory particles can sneak into the bloodstream and jump-start the immune response. "Then you understand, 'Oh, that's why I felt so inflamed, swollen, and tired when I was eating really poorly.'"
Now that you're familiar with the science, Shah recommends feeding your gut bacteria by increasing your vegetable intake to six to eight servings a day: "If you can get six to eight servings of [vegetables] in your daily life, that means two servings at every meal at least, you are going to experience enormous benefits in your gut health," she notes.
As for which vegetables to focus on? Prebiotic-rich foods like onion, garlic, asparagus, and jicama are gut-supporting superstars, as are cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. "And then you have amazing root vegetables, like sweet potato and yams," she adds. Try incorporating at least two of these veggies at every meal (yes, including breakfast), and you may notice a difference in energy.
2. Try circadian fasting.
On the subject of food, Shah says when you eat is just as important as the food you put on your plate. She's a fan of intermittent fasting but with a twist: "Doing intermittent fasting in the circadian style is the correct biological way of doing intermittent fasting," she says.
How does this relate to energy? Well, your body follows a circadian rhythm every single day, with your hormones sending messages to your brain when it's time for sleep. "The hormone melatonin, for example, binds to your brain to tell it to get sleepy," says Shah. But "it also binds to the pancreas and tells the pancreas to shut off insulin production and pancreatic enzyme production."
So when you eat late at night, your pancreas might not digest the food as well, as it was prepared for recovery mode. "It's like someone woke you up in a deep sleep and asked you a really difficult math problem," says Shah. "You are going to make mistakes, and you're not going to perform well on that math test."
That's why circadian fasting, she notes, may be a better way to approach intermittent fasting. With intermittent fasting, you can choose any time-restricted eating window you want; with circadian fasting, you eat with the rise and fall of the sun.
"Look at how we were evolutionarily built," says Shah. "We didn't have refrigerators and microwaves. We would end our meals shortly after sundown, and we wouldn't eat first thing in the morning. There was no cereal right there when you woke up, right? You would wake up, get your food, and it may be a little bit delayed. So physiologically and evolutionarily speaking, circadian fasting fits our bodies by biology."
3. Incorporate NEAT movement.
Another reason you might have low energy: "We don't get enough movement in the day," says Shah. But she doesn't mean you should go heavy on the HIIT workouts: "I'm talking about NEAT movement, non-exercise activity thermogenesis." Definition: Energy expended during "non-exercise"–related activities, like walking up stairs, carrying groceries, and the like.
Essentially, Shah wants you to focus on movement all day long—not only during a formal workout. "The longest-living people in the world in the Blue Zones, they're not doing what we in the Western world would consider 'exercise.' But they're not sitting in a chair for eight hours a day—they're moving around; they're taking the stairs' they're walking to their friend's place."
The link between exercise and energy levels is well documented, but Shah says that simple NEAT movements can help you reap similar benefits—in fact, research has shown that the number of calories NEAT burns ranges from about 15% to as much as 50% or more of your daily energy expenditure.
Consider taking your work calls while walking outside, or stand up and stretch every hour—it might make all the difference. (Find other ways to incorporate NEAT movement here.)
If you're facing chronic fatigue and low energy, try Shah's long-term tips to get your energy levels back up to speed. Her go-to's have benefits way beyond energy, anyway, and you might not even need that third cup of coffee to keep you on track.
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