This article was originally published on Healthista.
Why you’re so knackered by 4pm – and what to do if you have to keep working
It’s a tough time, that 3-6pm window where blood sugar levels, energy resources and often, simple enthusiasm for the day is waning. When clients describe that dreaded energy slump time, they are often amazed by my soothsaying abilities to pinpoint its looming at 4pm. But this is pure biochemistry talking; cortisol levels naturally dip at this time (our bodies are actually preparing for sleep!) and this stress hormone plays a large part in our energy, mood and motivation levels. I test most clients for cortisol levels throughout the day and although it can be initially raised in the face of chronic stress, often we see an afternoon decline by the time they’re coming to see me – often for fatigue and even exhaustion.
Blood sugar lows
With lowering cortisol, comes dropping blood sugar levels. Sugar (as glucose) is used up for energy by every single cell, every second we are alive and we can all feel the difference between good sustained levels when we feel clarity, easy energy and a healthy relationship with the food around us. If you have been roller-coastering up the peaks and down the troughs, stress, caffeine and sugar may have resulted in difficulties finding sustained balance, where those mid-afternoon hours can present a particular challenge to level and motivating energy.
This is a catch-22 for all of us; flagging brain energy sends a ‘fuel-up quick’ signal to send us towards the substances that will raise sugar most quickly. We can feel jangly, moody, unable to cope and ravenous in the face of this survival mechanism, so resisting the vending machine may be beyond our rational control.
Coming out of the blood sugar drop top tips:
- Fuel up before to limit the steep declines – breakfast and lunch are not to be missed or you may feel the downward spiral too late to limit it with blood-sugar supporting snacks like nuts. Working through lunch is a false economy if it leaves you with depleted resources and poor focus by 4pm.
- To keep going without turning to the quick-fixes that keep us trapped in sugar craving spirals, choose some canny snacks that provide that sweetness and also drip-feed not sudden spike energy. Nakd Cashew Cookie Bars, dried mango and fresh pineapple cubes are my favourite when the knee-jerk cravings have really set in.
Lowering levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, naturally occurring around 5pm, can have us looking for a fix that raises mood in any way we can. It is probably no surprise that serotonin (and therefore our sugar-seeking behaviours) is naturally lower pre-menstrually. If you’re like me, one of the first signs that a period is nigh is noticing a chocolate bar magically appearing in my hand. Now this unconscious behaviour is slightly exaggerated but if stress and PMS coincide, this knee-jerk self-medication is a glaring sign to slow down and look after myself.
All of this links to low moods and even depressive states – pre-menstrually or not. When serotonin is low, survival mechanisms kick in to get us to raise insulin levels, needed to allow its production in the brain. This equates to overriding cravings for sweet or starchy foods – especially those heady combos of both; cake, biscuits, flapjacks, which often just happen to be hanging around the office or checkout right in view of your craving brain.
Coming out of the mood slump top tips:
- Enlist a mood buddy – find a friend who has a similar issue and a good sense of humour. Laughing raises feel-good beta-endorphins to right low brain chemistry. Chuckling at your body’s idiosyncrasies with your buddy isn’t just bonding in the face of adversity, but it can actually break that craving cycle.
- Get out – not just running away from yet another birthday cake, but getting into some natural light to naturally raise serotonin levels. Get your beta endorphins naturally rising so you don’t feel the need to pump them up with sugar and increase circulation for good blood flow to the brain.
- Stretch – another beta endorphin riser and circulation booster, which reduces stress by releasing tension held in muscle when we sit locked into one position and stew with our thoughts.
- Rest and let the slump happen – our brains naturally have lulls in order to rest and recuperate. This is continually happening but can be felt most acutely at 4pm; also a time where we might feel a need to get things done before the end of the working day. If you go with it for five to ten minutes and sit away from your work, you’ll be able to watch it pick up again – refreshed and possibly with new perspective.
A natural quick-fix
“This all sounds great,” you think, “but I don’t have the time!”. It can take a little time to ditch the sugar and to get into better eating habits, but there are a number of sneaky shortcuts we can take to help you feel the benefit of a healthier lifestyle without the added preparation time. Healthy smoothies are a fantastic way to access the goodness your body need, even if you can’t pull yourself away from your desk!
Take 5 minutes to check out Charlotte’s top tips on making a healthy smoothie, stop at a greengrocer or supermarket on the way home from work to pick up from fruit (preferably organic!) and a blender if you don’t already have one. Then wake up just an extra 5 minutes earlier to stick it all into a blender before you leave for work. It could even be a great way to make sure you have some breakfast if you always find yourself running out of the door on an empty stomach!