6 Little Known Factors that Could Affect Your Energy Levels

Let’s face it: Kicking ass in life takes energy.

You can have all good intentions of running your first marathon, completing an Ironman, starting a business, or being an awesome mom or dad to your kids.  But if the energy isn’t there, you’ll be fighting a losing battle once the initial surge of excitement wears off.

Doing life-changing stuff isn’t as hard as most people make it out to be.  But it absolutely requires showing up.  That might mean getting up when it’s still dark out to get your run in.  Or burning the midnight oil while your family sleeps.  (As Gary Vee says, “7 PM to 2 AM is gametime.”)

So how do you get yourself to show up?  If your goal is compelling enough—and by “compelling,” I mean it’s an obsession—then what it comes down to is energy.

The more you use, the more you have

It’s a strange thing, this energy.  Anyone who has ever stuck with a fitness plan knows that once you’re a few weeks in, you have way more energy throughout the day than you did before you started exercising.  Counterintuitive, considering exercise expends energy.

Similar for food: From a caloric standpoint, a McSupersized extra value meal should provide you with plenty of fuel to use.  But how do you feel after you eat one of those?  Unless you’re starving, less is more when it comes to food.

Same for sleeping: Logging in 12-hour sessions seems like it should ready you for the day, but usually it leaves you dragging.  Unless you’re sleep deprived, it’s worth seeing what happens when you sleep just a little less.

So the big three rules most of us already know: Eat less, exercise more, and don’t go nuts with the sleep.

But there are other factors that could affect your energy.

They’re science-based.  Yet they’re controversial.

Why?  I suspect it’s because of people who overstate their importance.  In my experience, none of these factors have the impact that the big three do.  So when someone takes one and builds (and sells) an entire health plan around them, the result is a bunch of hype, a diet that doesn’t deliver, and our writing it off as a fad.

But this stuff shouldn’t be totally ignored.  If energy is your goal, every one of these aspects is worth considering.  Pick a few, try them for a few days or weeks, and judge for yourself.  I doubt any of them will kill you, and you might just find you have some extra energy for ass-kicking after work or early in the morning.

6 Factors that Could Affect Your Energy

1. When you drink water (or any liquid).

Healthy people drink a lot of water, as well they should.  But consider when you’re drinking that water: If you’re drinking it with your meal, you could be impairing your digestion.

Not only does water dilute the gastric juices required to digest food, it also exits the stomach after just a few minutes, taking those juices with it and making digestion difficult.  And since digestion accounts for 5 to 15 percent of your energy expenditure, that’s something you should care about.

A half hour fluid-free buffer on either side of your meals is a good place to start.  It’s strange at first, but you get used to it.

2. How you combine your foods.

There are diets based entirely on this principle, and I think that’s overkill, especially when the scientific tests of its efficacy are mixed.  But the biggest tenet, which says that carbohydrate-rich foods should not be mixed with protein-rich foods, makes sense to me.  The enzymes required to digest each nutrient tend to neutralize each other, again making digestion harder and slower than it should be.

So what does a meal look like, if it’s not a “square” meal of protein and carbs?  Try a big pile of non-starchy vegetables (salad, perhaps), and either a protein- or carbohydrate-rich food, but not both.

(Side note: The Wikipedia entry on food combining has an interesting paragraph about how some cultural rituals around eating may have evolved to maximize energy.)

3. Breathing.

We multitask, we achieve, we stress, we worry.  And so often during all of this, we forget to breathe.

Nobody breathes anymore.  At least, not the way we’re designed to, from very deep within our bodies.  The result is more stress, less breathing, and more stress.  (As an athlete, however, you’re at a huge advantage.  Your daily training encourages deeper breathing.)

Give your cells some oxygen.  Take a few minutes every day and just breathe.  If you need something to occupy your mind, try breathing exercises.

4. How acidic your body is.

The idea behind the alkaline diet is that our modern lifestyle produces an acidic environment in the body.  In this acidic environment, disease thrives, the body stores fat and leeches minerals from bones in an attempt to become alkaline, and relative hell breaks loose.

Is the acid/alkaline balance worth building an entire diet around?  In my opinion and limited experience with it, no.  But I find most of the arguments compelling.  And it’s not only quacks who are promoting it: In Thrive, Brendan Brazier advocates paying attention to acidity and alkalinity to what I consider a healthy extent—not obsessing over it, but not denying that it’s a factor in our health and energy levels.  (For more of Brendan’s thoughts on energy, check out the second interview I did with him.)

5. Not just what you eat, but how you eat.

Eat at the table.  Turn off the television and talk while you eat.  Eat slowly.  Chew your food.

We hear it so much, it’s starting to become nagging.  But really, do you do this stuff?  I don’t (enough).  Eating slowly and relaxed happens to go beautifully with not chugging water to wash down every bite before it’s chewed, and with breathing as well.

6. Whether you burn fat or sugar for fuel.

This is one that I can totally get behind.  I’ve noticed a major improvement in my endurance since I phased out most sugar on the mornings of my long runs, up until the very end when you need a boost to get to the finish.

I first learned this from Greg McMillan (see his approach to training your body to burn fat).  Then I heard Stu Mittleman talk about it.  These guys are talking about endurance running, but the same goes for the rest of your life.  Your body stores far more energy in the form of fat than it can sugar.  (Not an insult; this is true whether you have a cottage-cheese ass or washboard abs.)

So if you can train your body to burn fat at low intensities for a long time before it switches to sugar, you can go on with ass-kicking for hours before you shut down.  If instead, you rely on sugar, as most people do, even at pretty low intensities, the fuel burns out quickly.  If you’re running, you’ll bonk when your body shuts down to save some to keep your brain operating.  To a lesser extent, the same goes for the rest of what you do during the day.

Brilliant? Hogwash?

The way I see it, very few of us have the physiology background to really say whether this all is legit.  We’re left with three options: You can buy in completely and blindly, you can call it all bullshit, or you can do what I like to do.  Which is to try it.  As long as it won’t kill me, I’m pretty much game if there’s the chance it’ll take my energy to the next level.  What about you?



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  1. Andrew Paez says:

    Very interesting post…lots to think about. I’d add sleep, as I find not getting enough really adversely affects my workouts. And I don’t sleep much to begin with. Thanks..cheers from California (and headed to Mazatlan soon).

  2. Hey Matt, loved the post. Could you talk a little bit more about #6. I’m curious, but don’t feel like I’m entirely understanding what you’re saying. Thanks!

    • Would also like to know more about #6. I understand burning fat rather than relying on fast burning sugar but would love to know more about what you’ve changed in your routine to get that to happen. How do you “train your body to burn fat at low intensities for a long time before it switches to sugar?”

    • Kim and everyone else who wants to hear more about #6. First, check out the link to Stu Mittleman. I write some more details in that post. And read the Greg McMillan article. Also a good explanation.

      If you don’t feel like doing that, here’s the one-minute version. I’m being very general here, so don’t quote me on this stuff. Anaerobic exercise burns sugar, aerobic exercise burns fat. You can only go for 90 minutes to 3 or so hours on sugar, maybe less. That’s why you need to replenish it so much during, say, a marathon, but not during a half. It produces a lot of acid in the body as well, which (for the reasons the acid/alkaline people cite) is not optimal for anything in the body.

      You can go forever on your stored fat (muscles will fatigue long before you run out of fat to burn). As you exercise at very low intensity, you burn fat since it’s aerobic. But if you go too fast, your body will shift to anaerobic and burn sugar. The goal is to train your body to stay in the fat-burning zone longer and at higher-intensity exercise. This has nothing to do with losing weight, everything to do with endurance.

      How do you train it to do that? Different approaches. All involve gradually weening yourself off of sugars during runs. Stu Mittleman, for example, told me eats raw almonds and vegetable purees during runs, and that he’d never eat a banana while he is running. But be careful, because if you’re used to sugar and you just cut it out all the sudden, you’ll bonk and it can be dangerous.

      You can also do stuff like start off very slowly, walking even, and keeping intensity lower. You build an aerobic, fat-burning base over time. And by warming up very gradually, you don’t cause an immediate shift to sugar burning like you might if you started out fast right away.

      That’s about the extent of my knowledge of it. It’s an idea that’s only recently gaining popularity, so there’s not too much available info yet. Hope that helps a little!

      • Here is also another way to think about burning sugar vs. burning fat. When we are stressed out (our cortisol levels are high) we are burning sugar. This is the state most of us are unfortunately living our lives, going from eating a candy bar to grabbing a cup of coffee for “energy”. And this will only make matters worse. As soon as you eat a candy bar with a lots of excess sugar, your body almost immediately goes again to using sugar as primary source of energy. The same thing happens when we are really stressed out, or as Matt pointed out when you do anaerobic exercise (like jog or exercise too hard to get out of breath).

        So learning to relax, not eating sugar, and doing exercises that is very easy for you is the keys to training your body to use fat as your primary fuel. And the benefits for doing this is huge. When you burn fat, you are actually also hydrating your cells at the same time (and cleansing your body), your cortisol levels drop (you become even more relaxed) and you oxygenated your body. In other words, you feel better than ever and have the energy to achieve your dreams :)!

        Just to be clear, I am not an expert on this subject either and my ideas come mainly from listening hundreds of hours of Dr. John Gray (the author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus) health, wellness, and anti-aging lectures.

        This is a great blog!!

      • Sanam Holley says:

        I am so confused though. I just purchased your meal plan …. One of your pre workouts is a cup of juice and so is your post workout. So are you saying we shouldn’t do that?

  3. This was so helpful, it reminds me of your post on moderation which I found inspiring. Go big or go home, right?! I think lack of sleep is a detriment to health, but as long as you are getting a decent amount, you need to make time to exercise. Even if it’s in the morning while it’s still dark, you need to make the commitment. Thanks for this!

    P.S. I also find a lot of validity to the acid/alkaline balance theory. Not only form research but in experimenting in my own diet.

    • Hi Honey B Nutrition ( cool name -:))

      I have a problem with the acid/ alkaline balance. YOu mentioned experimenting with your own diet. any tips suggestions will really really be helpful

      A big thank you all the way from singapore

  4. Pretty good stuff Matt. Worth a re-Tweet.

  5. Great post with lost of interesting points, thanks! I’m one of those that tends to drink a lot of water with meals, but should reconsider.

  6. Great post Matt. I often tell my clients to try and not drink water too close to meals or with meals as it dilutes digestive juices. I am so glad someone else agrees with me.

  7. I think you make some interesting points. I do think that the whole food combining thing is not true and possibly unscientific. Most foods we eat are a combination of carbs, proteins and fats anyway. For example 100g of oats is around 14g proteins and 56g of carbs; 100g dried chickpea 22g protein, 48g carbs. So one cannot really separate them. Our bodies have the enzymes to break these down simultaneously as they occur simultaneously in foods.

    I would add to these points: Consuming too much caffeine (ultimately will result in adrenal stress and fatigue). And not getting enough sleep.

    Thanks for the post. I enjoy your writing.

    • Madeleine, I had that same question about foods that are both protein and carbs. In the diet I’ve looked at, beans and legumes count as carbohydrates, except soybeans. So it sounds like they just got by whichever nutrient they contain more of. Although, you’d think they would have thought of this before they wrote entire books on the subject, so I’m sure there’s some explanation that’s at least plausible. I’ll have to look into it.

  8. As somebody who once fell asleep standing up (no joke) the pursuit of more energy has long been a passion of mine.

    Judging from my own experience, I agree that over-sleeping is just as bad as under-sleeping. Madeleine above also makes a good point about consuming too much caffeine (as well as sugar)… you get a high but come crashing down.

    Another things worth looking into is the proper functioning of your thyroid gland, adequate intake of vitamin B12 and iron (especially for vegetarians and vegans) as well as food allergies. I heard from a naturopathic doctor that gluten sensitivities especially can be responsible for the so-called “brain fog”.

  9. Ditto on more details for #6. I understand the premise, but could you explain what to eat when, or how to run in such a way that you do burn fat?

  10. Another thing that is controversial is adrenal fatigue. I use to run marathons but noticed my energy slowly decreasing. Exercise started making me feel worse instead of better. Doctors said is was due to getting older, but i was 32 when this started and they tried to blame it on my vegan diet. Long story short, i was bed ridden before any dr would believe me. Now I’m improving with the right treatment. Maria was right about thyroid (hypothyroid number one cause of brain fog), etc. I have a thyroid problem, low iron, low vit d and gluten and soy allergies. You can’t go by “normal” lab values either. this web site saved my life – http://nthadrenalsweb.org

    • Tonia, I’ve heard some stuff about adrenals too, but also heard it’s overstated. Mainly I heard about the dangers when I read a book about how bad caffeine is for us. Adrenal fatigue was the thing they kept harping on.

  11. I agree with some of it, not all – as most things in life, I suppose!

    I’m curious about the sugar thing. Would you be able to talk about this one more in-depth? Are you referring to naturally-occurring sugars (fruit) or added sugars (white sugar, honey, maple syrup)?

    Breathing is something that I am SO BAD at (which sounds ridiculous). That’s why I’ve decided to do yoga on a daily basis – I figure if I’m practicing yoga regularly, it will help me to get back in tune with my body and help me to focus on my breathing.

  12. Here’s a little more info on how/why to train your body to burn fat instead of sugar.

  13. I like how you put the big and little energy helpers together Matt. What works for one personal will be individualized just like diets are individualized because everyone’s different. I’m going to give that not drinking water with your meal thing a try.

  14. Reagrding the acid/alkaline balance, it’s worth reading THE CHINA STUDY, by T.Colin Campbell. Some PhD nutritionists I’ve talked to have the scientific evidence supporting an alkaline (as well as a plant based) diet. This is not even as much as a regard to energy level, but dieases of the body and “diseases of affluence.”

  15. “The more you use, the more you have” is really true. It seems so counterintuitive but lately I have been upping my running distance and more energetic than ever. I guess “bodies in motion stay in motion”, right? 🙂

  16. I think you are dead-on all of your 6 points. And I think they are all excellent points. I have implemented all of those points in my life and the results at least for me have been amazing. If I know eat a meal with protein and carbohydrates at the same time, I immediately feel much more sluggish after the meal. And like you the one point that I really still need to work on is to only eat when I am eating. It is so easy to just to check your emails or messages with iPhone or watch something in your computer. Thanks again for posting!

  17. Great website. I just found your wen=bsite and read this article. Maybe I like it so much because it your thoughts are almost mine exactly. I am an triathlete, and dabble in all sports, and also have gluten intolerance and some food allergies, so I’ll be reading more from you. Thanks!

  18. Great article, I have a lot of issues with energy levels (mine will be fine and then suddenlsy dip) so I’ll give some of your suggestion a shot. Thank you!

  19. Donna Moore says:

    I came across your website after looking up things that affect your energy level and I was impressed with what I read. I have fibromyalgia so my sleep schedule is nonexistent, I have no schedule because of the pain I sleep when I can but it is a very disrupted sleep and I never seem to be rested. My pain levels , lack of energy and the problem of balance make it difficult at best to make or keep up any kind of exercise routine. Could you please address the issues associated with a progressive disease and things we can do to help ourselves. I really need help because I am almost completely immobile due to the numerous symptoms of fibromyalgia and the limitations of my body. I just can’t seem to get started on anything due to my almost nonexistent energy.

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