Why are we all so tired right now?
Fatigue can be caused by any number of underlying conditions or imbalances, but the fact that we all seem to be experiencing it at the same time tells me that the question “Why are we all so tired right now?” can be answered in one word: Stress. Because if there’s one thing I think can all agree on, it’s that this year has been stressful. We’ve been worried about our health and the health of those we love, we’ve been concerned about our future plans, our businesses, finances, and our jobs. We’ve been trying to take these unprecedented times in stride and at the same time, we’ve been unable to lean on many of the habits, like a hot yoga class or a massage, that help us cope. There’s a lot to be grateful for — but I still don’t know a single person who would say this year has been an easy one!
There’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard that stress is bad for your health — it is, after all, linked to dozens of health conditions, including anything from headaches to IBS to heart disease to psoriasis. But do you know why exactly stress causes fatigue? To really understand the link between stress and your energy levels, we have to dive into the science of the nervous system.
The Science of the Nervous System
The nervous system is one of our body’s most incredible systems. It’s intricately designed to protect us from harm and give our bodies and brains the tools they need to escape danger and stay alive. When we encounter a stressor, whether it be a close-call with a car when we’re crossing the street or news story about a particularly scary aspect of the pandemic — our body launches a stress response.
This response involves something called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is known as the “fight or flight” nervous system. In an instant, the SNS sends a signal to our adrenal glands (through a complex web of communications called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which are two small glands that sit on top of our kidneys, so they can start to release hormones and chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline into our bloodstream. This causes almost immediate physiological changes — our heart rate increases, our muscles tense, our breathing becomes more shallow, glucose is released into our bloodstream, and our digestion slows down so we can direct blood and energy to other areas of the body. In other words, we are ready to fight or flee!
Once the threat has passed, the flip side of our nervous system — known as our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) — kicks in. Known as our “rest and digest” system, the PNS helps slow our heartbeat and bring us back to a state of peace and calm. Intricately involved in the PNS is an incredible nerve called the vagus nerve, which travels from the base of your brain down your body and into your abdomen. On its way there, it attaches to almost every major organ, including the heart and GI tract.
Isn’t it amazing how these two systems fit together like puzzle pieces? Our bodies truly do have an innate intelligence, specially trained to look after us, keep us functioning optimally, and help us feel our best.
The Stress-Sleepiness Connection
You might be wondering “Okay, Dr. Cole — but how does this connect back to fatigue?” I’m getting there, I promise! I want you to have a deep appreciation for how intricate this system is, so that you understand why so many things can go wrong when the stress response is overloaded. You see, when we suffer from chronic, sustained stress, our SNS is constantly activated, our adrenal glands are constantly pumping out cortisol and adrenaline, and our PNS rarely has a chance to kick in and help us wind down.
This can cause “adrenal fatigue” and “HPA axis dysfunction, which is when the stress response system starts to go haywire, causing you to produce stress hormones all the time. And here’s where the fatigue element really comes in: cortisol works in partnership with another hormone, called melatonin, on a daily cycle. Cortisol is supposed to be naturally highest in the morning and then it’s supposed to decrease to make room for melatonin, which is naturally produced at night. When your stress response is constantly activated, it causes an imbalance in the antureal rhythm; cortisol is either low when it should be high, high when it should be low or always low or always high. As you can probably guess, this also knocks melatonin production out of whack, leaving you a little bit sleepy — all the time. It’s the perfect recipe for feeling tired when you wake up, even with enough sleep, tired in the afternoon — especially during the “3 p.m. slump”— and “tired but wired” in the evening, since cortisol doesn’t fully let melatonin take over to help us get to sleep.
Science-Backed Ways to Fight Fatigue
If you’re feeling burnt out and tired all the time, the good news is that there are steps you can take to healing your stress response system and get your HPA axis back on track.
1. Take a power nap
If you’re dead tired after lunch or around 3 p.m., it might not be a bad idea to honor your body’s needs and shut your eyes for a few minutes. Studies have shown that 15-minute naps can help reduce sleepiness, fatigue, stress, and tension (1). Even if you lay down and shut your eyes for 10 minutes, you can reduce stress and give yourself time to reset and relax.
2. Maintain a consistent bedtime
As I explained earlier, your cortisol and melatonin production is intricately tied to your sleep-wake cycle. If you want to try to get them back on track, it can be really helpful to send them strong, consistent messages by going to bed around the same time every night and trying to wake up the same time every morning. If you think about it, it must be confusing for your body to get to bed at 10 p.m. one night and then at 2:30 a.m. the next! Studies have also shown that an irregular bedtime can impact sleep quality; so even if you’re sleeping 8 hours, you may not feel rested! (2)
3. Strengthen your vagus nerve
The vagus nerve helps modulate the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system, so it’s important to make sure it’s functioning well! The good news is that there are a set of easy habits that can increase the strength of your vagus nerve, including daily exercise and deep breathing. You can learn more about strengthening your vagus nerve, here.
4. Try adaptogens
Adaptogens are a broad family of herbs and plant medicines that have been used for thousands of years to help the body handle stress and balance hormones. These are my go-to herbs for chronic stress and HPA axis dysfunction since they’re known to help keep cortisol in balance and exhibit a protective effect on the nervous system (3). You can learn more about adaptogens in my adaptogens guide, but some of my favorite for stress are:
- Cordyceps: Cordyceps can rebalance stress hormones and has been shown to restore energy in those struggling with adrenal fatigue. (4)
- Ginseng: Ginseng is great for those seeking an extra boost of energy without the jitters that can come from caffeine. Personally, I especially like to use it to combat jet lag because it can help reset your internal clock.
- Maca: This herb is a great energy-booster and has been used for thousands of years to support a healthy mood, energy levels, and libido.
5. Meditate for 21 minutes a day
Meditation is one of the best tools we have to relax our nervous system. Stillness and deep breathing can help activate the PNS and tell our bodies that everything is a-okay. So why 21 minutes, you ask? A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Associate (JAMA) found that an average of 2.5 hours of meditation per week can be enough to reap consistent health benefits. That equates to only 21 minutes a day! I recommend meditating first thing in the morning to set the tone for the day. (5)
When you really dive into the science of our nervous system and how it relates to our sleep-wake cycles, it’s really no surprise that we’re feeling tired right now. Follow the tips above to bring some much-needed balance back to your stress response.
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Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC is a functional-medicine expert, who specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing health programs for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal dysfunctions, digestive disorders, and brain problems.
Dr. Cole graduated from Southern California University of Health Sciences in Los Angeles, California. He has his post doctorate education and training in Functional Medicine and Clinical Nutrition through The Institute for Functional Medicine and Functional Medicine University. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional-medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is a health expert and course instructor for the world’s largest wellness brands such as mindbodygreen and goop. Cole is also the bestselling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.