Q&A: How to Put an End to Low Energy in the Afternoon

08/04/2015 | 16 min. read

Dr. David Williams

Dr. David Williams

Q&A: How to Put an End to Low Energy in the Afternoon

Q: Why does my energy fall off so dramatically in the afternoon? It’s pretty consistent until about 3:00 PM—that’s when I start to go downhill rapidly. I know it’s not the answer, but I need a cup of coffee or something sweet to get me back on track. This messes up my diet and probably just makes me fatter, which is another issue. Can you offer any help?

A: I think most people feel that this late-day energy slump is normal and there’s not much that can be done, but that’s not the case. Once you understand what’s happening in your body, it’s relatively easy to correct these issues.

Low Blood Sugar Leads to Low Energy

Fluctuating blood sugar is one of the main causes of chronic fatigue, poor sleep patterns, weight gain and fat accumulation, diabetes—and plunging energy.

When your blood sugar starts to drop, your body’s survival mechanisms start to take over. When the brain senses plummeting energy levels, it immediately sends out signals of hunger and the innate sensation that carbohydrates are the quickest way to solve the problem. (Simple carbohydrates like sugar enter the bloodstream fastest, followed by proteins and fats.)

The brain uses more energy than any other organ. By some estimates, two-thirds of that energy is used by nerve cells sending impulses, and one-third is used in routine functions—“housecleaning” that keeps brain cells alive. It’s no surprise that when your blood sugar levels drop, you experience a loss of concentration, sleepiness, irritability, and lack of energy.

How Leptin Plays a Role

When fat mass increases in our body, fat cells produce more leptin, which signals the brain to suppress appetite. When our fat mass is lowered, leptin production falls, telling the brain that our appetite needs to increase so we fill up our fat cells for energy. Leptin acts much like the gas gauge on a car. It keeps our energy reserves (fat storage) in balance.

Keep in mind that I’m describing the way things are supposed to work. Obviously, this process isn’t working as it should or we wouldn’t be in the middle of an unprecedented obesity epidemic.

A few years ago when researchers discovered leptin, they believed they had found the Holy Grail of weight loss. They thought obese individuals could simply take leptin and they wouldn’t store excess fat.

It turns out, however, that obese people produce lots of leptin—even more than average-weight people. The problem is that their leptin never reaches the brain so that the brain can tell the body to stop eating. It gets blocked by triglycerides. The fat cells continue to produce more and more leptin but, much like insulin resistance, the body becomes leptin resistant.

When we eat a high-carbohydrate diet, the excess blood sugar is broken down by insulin and converted into triglycerides. Triglycerides are released into the bloodstream and transported to fat tissue throughout the body, where they can be stored and later used for energy.

One of the quickest ways to skyrocket leptin-blocking triglycerides is to start consuming a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. When our diets started focusing primarily on low-fat, fat-free, artificially sweetened, and high-carb foods, obesity rates exploded. Our misplaced fear of fats is taking its toll.

Cutting out simple carbohydrates and incorporating more fish, fish oil, and other healthy fats and proteins into the diet are the best ways to reduce triglycerides and start making leptin more effective.

Leptin levels are also influenced by circadian rhythm. The 24-hour variations in leptin levels mirror those of body temperature. In the morning, they are low (which helps stimulate appetite) and they continue to rise throughout the day until they peak at night (when they depress appetite).

Unfortunately, modern society has dramatically changed the time and the way we eat. Based on our circadian rhythm, we are designed to consume most of our food during the daylight hours. But most eating routines are exactly opposite of the way they should be. A hearty breakfast has almost become a thing of the past and the evening meal has become the largest meal of the day. Studies continue to illustrate a direct connection between these eating habits and the most common diseases of our time, but we ignore them.

Individuals who regularly eat breakfast have a lower body mass index than those who skip it. And when breakfast includes protein and fat, people are less hungry during the day and blood sugar levels stay more stable.

In September of last year at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, researchers reported on a study involving 59 people with type 2 diabetes.

Half the participants ate a big breakfast with fat and protein that contained 1/3 of their daily calories. The other half ate a small breakfast containing only 12.5 percent of their daily calories.

After 13 weeks, blood sugar, HbA1c levels, and blood pressure dropped dramatically in those who consumed the big breakfast. Even more telling, the big breakfast group experienced blood sugar level reductions three times greater than those who ate the small breakfast—and about 1/3 of the big breakfast group cut back on their medication while 17 percent of the small breakfast group had to increase their medication.

Those eating the big breakfast also were less hungry during the day and reported a reduced urge to eat. The small breakfast group had a heightened preoccupation with food and a greater desire to eat over time. (Diabetes Digest 13; Vol. 12 No.4)

Numerous studies have demonstrated that eating low-glycemic breakfast foods (which have less tendency to raise blood sugar) increases feelings of satiety and fullness and actually makes people less likely to overeat throughout the rest of the day.

These are just a few of the reasons why low-carb diets are effective at helping people lose excess weight and fat. It’s easier to change your routine, eat healthier, and lose body fat when you aren’t starving yourself.

Thyroid and Adrenal Connection

A drop in hormone levels, particularly thyroid and adrenal hormones, can also contribute to afternoon energy slumps.

Hypothyroidism and hypoadrenalism are undoubtedly two of the most under-diagnosed conditions we face nowadays.

I’ve found that if you’re taking supplements like the glandular Thytrophin (for the thyroid) or Drenamin (for the adrenal glands), they will often be more effective if you spread the dosages throughout the day. The same holds true if you’re taking a thyroid hormone. In all these instances, individuals experience a more consistent level of energy and maximum benefits when they take divided doses spread throughout the day, rather a single dose. There are a few of reasons for this.

Normal hormone secretion is linked to the circadian rhythms of the body. Thyroid hormone levels typically peak in the morning between 2:00–4:00 AM and are at a minimum between 4:00–8:00 PM. (J Clin Endocrinol Metab 08 Jun;93(6):2300–2306)

The adrenal glands seem to operate a little differently and appear to have their own “circadian clock” that defines when they’re most responsive to the signals of the pituitary gland. As a general rule, however, most of the steroid-type hormones of the adrenals are highest in the morning and lowest at night. (Cell Metab 06 Aug;4(2):163–173)

Ideally, the adrenal glands respond to the energy demands as needed throughout the day. Signs of adrenal insufficiency include difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, energy slumps during the day, and feeling tired all day.

It seems like few doctors truly understand the close connection between the thyroid and the adrenals. Cortisol, one of the primary hormones released by the adrenals, controls thyroid hormone activation at the cellular level. Higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) make the body more insulin resistant and lead to greater fat storage. Out-of-balance cortisol levels can also result in decreased thyroid function.

The easiest way for you to screen for a hypothyroid condition is to use the Broda Barnes basal temperature test. And as long as your thyroid is still working, iodine drops (such as Iosol) and a good glandular supplement (such as Thytrophin from Standard Process Laboratories) will usually correct the problems.

You can screen for adrenal problems by checking for Ragland’s sign (where your blood pressure drops when rising from a horizontal position to a standing position.) As a practical matter, if you feel dizziness, lightheadedness, or a blackout type sensation when you stand up too fast, that’s a sure sign of adrenal fatigue.

Weak adrenals can often be returned to normal again using a glandular supplement (such as Drenamin from Standard Process Laboratories), cutting sugar out of the diet, eating regularly, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep.

Unfortunately, weak adrenals affect sleep. Waking up during the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep is common. Adrenal hormones raise blood sugar and help maintain stable energy requirements.

Your body continues to use energy while you sleep and, just as they do during your waking hours, the adrenals keep blood sugar levels from falling too low. It’s been estimated that roughly two-thirds of your stored glucose reserves are utilized during a night’s sleep. When your adrenals are exhausted, they can’t always maintain blood sugar levels. Not only are you seeing this during your afternoon energy slumps, but it can also happen in the night.

If you seem exhausted and fall asleep quickly, then wake up a few hours later or in the middle of the night and have difficulty getting back to sleep, think adrenal fatigue. During the night, as your energy reserves are depleted, your body demands more energy and the adrenal glands respond with spurts of hormones that wake you up.

Since proteins and fats are broken down and released more slowly into the bloodstream than carbohydrates, they help stabilize blood sugar into the night. With severe adrenal problems, it may be necessary to consume a handful of nuts, some peanut butter, a small whey protein shake (just protein powder and water or skim milk), or cottage cheese an hour or so before bedtime. These small snacks during the afternoon can also be helpful...they keep the adrenals out of the blood sugar picture and allow them to rest and rebuild.

Your Circadian Rhythm

You also need to consider your individual circadian profile type when it comes to afternoon energy slumps.

There really are morning people (larks) and evening people (owls). However, I don’t think that’s truly determined until at least after puberty. (Every teenager going through puberty seems to like staying up half the night and then sleeping until noon. At that age, everyone claims to be an evening person.)

Studies have shown that morning people like to rise between 5:00 and 7:00 AM and retire between 9:00 and 11:00 PM, and they have more difficulty when their circadian rhythm gets altered.

Evening people prefer to wake up between 9:00 and 11:00 AM and retire between 11:00 PM and 3:00 AM, and they make adjustments to new sleep schedules more easily.

Based on my research of the literature, it appears that many individuals are evening people because of the way they have set their circadian clock.

Our circadian clocks are set with light. For thousands of years, the only bright light humans were exposed to was sunlight. Our biological clocks were set when the sun came up each morning. Since the invention of artificial lighting, we’ve been haphazardly and indiscriminately toying with our internal clocks which, in turn, regulates hormone secretion, body temperature, blood pressure, pain sensitivity, mental alertness, oxygen consumption, blood sugar, heart activity, metabolism, and sleep cycles.

All living organisms are controlled by clock genes, which create proteins that oscillate and function as biochemical signals. It’s a very complex system that is not just linked to light but other input from the environment such as smells and temperature. It is how our bodies were designed and have adapted to the daily cycle of light and dark, as the Earth rotates every 24 hours.

I’ve had a career-long interest in studying the beneficial working relationship between the body’s microflora and health. New research just released from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, has directly linked an interruption of circadian rhythm with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which affects over 600,000 Americans each year.

We’re still learning about the connection between the circadian clock and the immune system. But these researchers discovered our body’s internal clock controls the number of key inflammatory cells that patrol mucosal surfaces like the respiratory tract and intestinal lining. These cells protect us from bacterial and fungal infections. When researchers disrupted the day-night light cycles, they found too many of these cells are formed, which leads to inflammatory diseases like IBD.

Although these initial studies were performed using animals, there’s no reason to believe the same thing isn’t happening in humans. The take-away of this study is poor sleep habits and a disruption of the normal circadian cycle may be one of the precursors and/or a major contributing factor to IBD. (Science 13 Nov 8;342(6159):727–730)

It’s amazing to me that this area gets so little research. We spend about one-third of our lives sleeping, yet the health ramifications of when, how long, and how well we sleep largely get overlooked. That’s amazing when you think that if you live to the age of 75, 25 of those years you spend sleeping.

We do know that with age, we tend to need less sleep but, at the same time, the circadian clock is easier to disrupt and reset. When I was a teenager, I stayed out half the night and got back on track rather quickly. Now if I stay up much past 1:00 AM, I’m pretty much worthless the next day.

Not surprisingly, many people diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome have been found to suffer from the exact same symptoms associated with a disrupted circadian rhythm.

Reset Your Internal Clock

I would strongly suggest making a concerted effort of resetting your circadian rhythm.

Start going to bed at a consistent time between 9:00–11:00 PM. Get all the extraneous light out of your bedroom (this includes items that glow constantly like clocks, televisions, DVRs, etc.). Close your curtains or shades to block light from the outside. If this isn’t possible, use an eye mask.

Higher concentrations of blue wavelength light seem to be the most detrimental (460–480 nm). Blue light is emitted by high-efficiency light bulbs and computers.

In a recent experiment, researchers fitted cataract patients with blue light-blocking lenses during cataract surgery. Following the surgeries, patients slept more at night, and sleep quality and their levels of daytime dysfunction due to sleepiness also improved dramatically. (Neuro Endocrinol Lett 11;32(2):158–163) (J Clin Sleep Med 13 Aug 15;9(8):741–745)

I won’t be surprised if these types of lenses become a popular item for cataract patients, but we can’t forget the flipside of the blue light spectrum. While it’s beneficial to block blue wavelength light at night, during the daytime it is necessary to help reset your biological clock and promote alertness.

Instead of replacing the lens of the eye, blue light-blocking eyeglasses worn for three hours or so before sleep is a far better option.

I’ve been getting a number of very positive reports from individuals using these glasses an hour or two before bedtime. They tend to fall asleep faster and, when combined with either a sleep mask or a darkened room, their insomnia resolves. (Chronobiol Int 09 Dec;26(8):1602–1612) (J Pineal Res 06 Aug;41(1):73–78)

Some of the least expensive glasses I’ve found that block these wavelengths of blue light are shooting and safety glasses. The gun manufacturer, Beretta, sells a pair for $7.50. Another inexpensive pair is Uvex S1993X Skyper Safety Eyewear, SCT-Orange UV Extreme, available at Amazon.com.

Dietary Considerations

You’ve probably heard about human growth hormone (HGH). In the last few years, it has received an enormous amount of attention as a possible anti-aging therapy. HGH promotes linear growth (height) in children and adolescents. After we quit growing taller, HGH levels decline quickly and are quite low during our adult years.

People with the lowest levels tend to have higher body fat, decreased lean muscle mass, and lower bone density. A few studies have shown that adult men given HGH injections reversed these conditions. Athletes and others who had the money (it can cost as much as $500–$1,000 a month) quickly started using it, but the results have been all over the place.

As can be expected, when you mess with hormones, all types of serious side effects (immune dysfunction, diabetes, leukemia, etc.) can result. I’m not advocating HGH injections by any means, but it appears that you may be able maximize your normal HGH levels by keeping your circadian rhythm set correctly.

HGH is produced primarily during the hours of sleep before midnight. And HGH production is blocked by insulin.

Bodybuilders have understood this principle for years and learned that to build lean muscle and stay fit, not only is adequate sleep (getting to bed before midnight) essential, it is also important to not eat carbohydrates and trigger an insulin release before bedtime. This is why they often have a protein snack before bed. Protein can help stabilize your blood sugar without the need for insulin.

Keep in mind that a protein shake in the evening should be mostly protein and not loaded with fruit or other high-carb ingredients. Eat a light meal early (5:00–6:00 PM), then around 8:00–9:00 PM have a shake made with a couple of scoops of protein powder blended in either skim milk or water and a few ice cubes. (Read more about the health benefits of whey protein powder.)

A small protein shake a couple of hours before bedtime also has an another benefit: It can dramatically increase glutathione levels. (Clin Invest Med 93 Jun;16(3):204–209)

Glutathione is not only one of our body’s most powerful antioxidants, it also helps regulate DNA synthesis, enhances the immune system, and is an amazing detoxifying agent.

Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that glutathione levels seem to have a direct relation to one’s health and longevity. Individuals with the highest levels of glutathione experience less illness and tend to live longer. And the highest survival rates among individuals who do contract disease are those who have greater glutathione levels.

Darkness triggers the release of melatonin from the pineal gland in the brain. Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant in its own right, but when melatonin production is suppressed, it has a direct influence on glutathione levels as well. When you suppress melatonin through lack of sleep, exposure to light at night, etc., you suppress glutathione levels. (Chronobiol Int 03 Nov;20(6):921–962)

A drop in afternoon energy levels has become common and almost universal in our society. But common in no way equals normal. insomnia is common, obesity is common, diabetes is common—but none of these are normal. They all start with subtle symptoms (warning signs) that should prompt us to take a closer look at our diet, lifestyle habits, and other activities.

The connection you see between the time of day and your energy slump isn’t just coincidental. It can be a blessing in disguise and provide you with a wealth of information so that you can take action to fix the problem.

Dr. David Williams

Meet Dr. David Williams

For more than 25 years, Dr. David Williams has traveled the world researching alternative therapies for our most common health problems—therapies that are inexpensive and easy to use, and therapies that treat the root cause of a problem rather than just its symptoms.

More About Dr. David Williams