There’s an energy crisis in America, and it has nothing to do with fossil fuels. No, this crisis is about the overwhelming shortage of human energy—our collective lack of get-up-and-go. Consider these findings from a 2017 national survey of working adults on their fatigue symptoms by the National Safety Council (NSC):
feel tired at work
feel less productive
have trouble focusing
have trouble remembering
have trouble making decisions
These side effects have consequences beyond just a groggy day at work, from poor cognitive performance that could put your job security at risk to serious safety concerns. Indeed, 16% percent of those surveyed by the NSC admitted to at least one fatigue-related safety event in the workplace, and 11% said they’d had a car crash or near miss due to drowsy driving. Those statistics are scary—and this is just one of many studies on the prevalence and performance consequences of tiredness and low energy.
To fight our fatigue, many of us are leaning more and more on the same energy crutch: Caffeine. Take our daily java consumption, levels of which are climbing according to the National Coffee Association. They found that the percentage of American adults sipping coffee daily climbed from 57 percent in 2016 to 62 percent in 2017. Factor in caffeinated tea, soda, and energy drinks, and the number jumps to 85% of Americans consuming at least one caffeinated beverage a day, according to findings in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.
Now, there’s nothing inherently bad about enjoying a cup of caffeinated coffee or tea. In fact, research has linked both with certain health benefits, including a decreased risk of certain cancers and improved heart health. (Energy drinks are another story; they have been linked with some adverse health effects.)
But here’s the Catch-22 on caffeine: If you’re using it regularly because you’re dragging, or simply not reaching your full energy potential, you’re only masking the fatigue—you’re not addressing the underlying cause. That’s evidenced in part by caffeine’s fleeting nature and what happens to us when the “high” wears off.
“Caffeine is a temporary boost, and even a counterproductive solution to low energy,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, medical director of Vital Plan. True, it can quicken reflexes, enhance mental clarity, and even improve athletic performance, he notes. “But tolerance develops quickly, requiring ever higher servings to get the same effect.”
And caffeine doesn’t energize as much as it stimulates. “It works by acting like adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone, to drive your body harder, like flooring the accelerator on your car,” explains Dr. Rawls. “If you’re already running on empty, caffeine can leave you feeling jittery and drained.”
If you want to truly feel energized, you must address what’s stealing energy from your body.
Discover your true energy vampires
The best way to break free from your caffeine habit is to determine why it’s got you hooked in the first place—what’s draining your reserves so much that you need those daily artificial boosts? Certainly, some underlying health issues and conditions can cause fatigue. But there are some other, stealthy energy vampires you might not know about. Keep reading to learn what they are, and how to stop them for good.
1. Sneaky caffeine
We already covered caffeine’s power to set you up for a crash. And maybe you’re great about cutting off your caffeine intake well in advance of bedtime so it doesn’t keep you up and steal rejuvenating Zzzs (experts recommend abstaining at least 6 hours before you call it a night). But caffeine can lurk in other surprising places you might want to avoid, including:
- Protein bars
- Ice cream and yogurt (coffee flavored or any kind made with chocolate)
- Pain medications (Exedrin Migraine, for instance, packs 130 mg per two-tablet serving)
- Non-cola colas (Barq’s root beer and A&W cream soda both have some)
- Decaffeinated coffee: Yes, you read that right. One University of Florida field study of 10 16-ounce cups of decaf from various national and local coffee shops found they still contained some caffeine (as much as 13.9 mg, compared to 80 mg in a regular 8-ounce cup). And 12 samples of Starbucks decaf espresso had as much as 15.8 mg of caffeine per shot. It’s less, yes, but if you’re sensitive to caffeine, it’s enough to disrupt sleep and leave you groggy the next morning. And speaking of lack of sleep…
2. Zzz monsters
File under “obvious,” but lack of sleep is a biggie when it comes to low energy. Nearly 35% of American adults don’t get seven hours of shuteye a night, the minimum recommended amount, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And come the next drowsy morning, wouldn’t you know it—our trusty friend caffeine is back for the rescue.
Odds are, if you regularly struggle to get enough sleep, you’ve tried at least some of the better-known sleep-hygiene tactics (avoiding naps, exercising early, establishing a regular bedtime) to no avail. Which suggests there are still some subtle sleep-stealing factors hidden throughout your day, such as:
- Lingering blue light: This is the kind electronic devices give off that hampers production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. If you already shut down your TV, computer, tablet, and cell phone an hour or two before bedtime, great. But do another bedroom scan: Things like baby monitors, digital alarm clocks, and even the little light indicating your cell phone is charging on your nightstand might be enough to disrupt your sleep.
- Your snuggly PJs: If you sleep in sweats, bundle up under blankets, and snuggle with your partner or a pet, you may be ramping up your core body temperature, and that signals your body that it’s time to wake up. Lose the unnecessary layers, and get Fluffy his own bed.
- Non-fiction books: Reading a book the old-fashioned way—as in, on paper, not a digital screen—is an oft recommended tip to bring on sleep. Go for it, but choose a novel: Some experts suggest non-fiction books (say, self-help or political titles) might become too engaging and keep you awake.
- Certain scents: Peppermint and citrus scents are stimulating, so if herbal tea is part of your bedtime routine, stick to soothing brews like chamomile and valerian and skip the squeeze of lemon.
- Medications and supplements: There are all sorts of prescription and over-the-counter drugs and even some vitamins that can disrupt sleep. These include some antidepressants, drugs for asthma, blood pressure, and colds, and vitamins B6 and B12. Talk to your doctor if you suspect you’re taking something that’s affecting your sleep to see if there’s an alternate serving schedule or treatment option.
3. Business attire
Uncomfortable work clothes and pinchy high heels keep us in our office chair: Research shows professionally-dressed workers take 500 fewer steps than on days they go with a more business casual look. And long-term sitting slows circulation, which means there’s less energizing oxygen moving throughout your body. Whenever you can, dress down and stand up.
Experts in feng shui and Vastu Shastra (the Vedic science of environmental harmony) will tell you those messy paper stacks, piles of unfolded laundry, and bins of overflowing toys are really just stagnant energy that are sucking yours into their vortex. And research bears out clutter’s energy-zapping powers: Findings in the Journal of Neuroscience, for instance, suggest that clutter dings our brain’s ability to process information, leaving us less productive and more irritable and distracted. Mom was right: A clean home is a happy home.
5. Toxic relationships
Sad to say, but we all have those people in our lives who take more than they give on an emotional level. These are the folks who drag you down with their anger, jealousy, guilt, insecurity, competitiveness, resentment, etc. Some of them may be easy enough to avoid—that neighbor who loves to play the blame game, or the coffee barista who laments the negative news headlines every morning you step up to the counter. Others—your beloved mom who’s mastered the guilt trip, or your self-body-shaming best friend—you can’t really turn your back on.
For those relationships you want to preserve, dedicate some time to thinking about the dynamic and how you might shift it to be more positive and fueling. Are you somehow encouraging their negativity, either by nodding along or even saying nothing at all (silence can be misconstrued as agreement)? Can you find ways to shift the subject, or possibly broach a gentle but honest conversation about how their attitude is sapping your life force? And what can you simply let go? Clinging to your own negative feelings about a person can be just as draining as your actual interactions with them.
The bottom line: Our human energy crisis is complex, and it’s not something a caffeine buzz can truly fix. That’s not to say you have to give up your morning Earl Grey ritual or go-to latte order, just enjoy your favorite brew for the delicious beverage that it is—which will be much easier once you’ve banished your energy vampires from your life.
1. National Safety Council Mission. Fatigue in the Workplace: Causes and Consequences of Employee Fatigue.
2. National Coffee Association. 2017 National Coffee Drinking Trend.s
3. Diane C. Mitchella et. al. Beverage caffeine intakes in the U.S. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2014 Jan; 63: 136-142
4. Ahmed Abdulrahman Alsunni, MBBS, PhD. Energy Drink Consumption: Beneficial and Adverse Health Effects. International Journal of Health Sciences. 2015 Oct; 9(4): 468-474
5. McMains S, Kastner S. Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human visual cortex. Journal of Neuroscience. 2011 Jan 12;31(2):587-97