What is one thing most Americans want?
More energy. According to a survey by staffing firm Accountempts, 7 out of 10 of us admit to working while tired, and one in three of us say we do so often. And it’s not just older people—86 percent of millennials stated they were tired while at work. Mattress company Amerisleep reports that over half of us admit to getting some shut-eye while on the clock.
The National Safety Council also conducted a survey, and found that 97 percent of respondents reported at least one risk factor for fatigue, including the following:
- Working at night or early in the morning
- Working longer shifts without regular breaks
- Working more than 50 hours per week
- Enduring long commutes
About 81 percent of respondents also had jobs that put them at high risk for fatigue—positions that required them to pay attention for long periods of time, or that were physically or mentally demanding.
Daytime fatigue works against us in a myriad of ways. We tend to be less productive, make more mistakes, and feel irritable and edgy. In some jobs, fatigue can even increase the risk of injury to ourselves and others.
The best solution is to get more sleep, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes, even when we do catch up, we still tend to feel droopy during the day. There’s always coffee, but too many cups can make you jittery. Are there healthier options?
Mental Exhaustion: A Key Factor in Daytime Fatigue
If you work at a physically demanding job, you probably don’t have any trouble understanding why you’re tired. But if you work at a computer all day or most of the day – like so many of us do – it can be confusing. Why would you feel tired after just sitting and typing?
It’s called “mental fatigue,” and it plagues a large majority of Americans. A side effect of brain over-activity, it usually creeps up on you in such a way that you can’t really see it coming. But you are likely to notice the signs and symptoms, which include the following:
- Feeling burned out
- Feeling physically fatigued and tired
- Increased tendency to suffer from headaches, back pain, and muscle aches
- Changes in your sleep habits
- Feeling trapped and defeated, or “stuck”
- Mood swings and irritability
- An overwhelming sense of mental stress
- Apathy; a reduced concern or motivation for work projects
- Difficulty concentrating, inability to focus
- Feelings of depression
- Making more mistakes than usual
- Experiencing mental blocks—being unable to think of new or creative ideas
- Low motivation
These sorts of symptoms are quite common in today’s fast-paced, technological world. We tend to be “on” all the time, taking work home with us and constantly communicating with colleagues, family, and friends, to the point that we rarely give the brain a chance to zone out and really rest.
Unlike the cold or flu, mental exhaustion doesn’t come on all at once. Instead, it slowly accumulates over time and is usually caused by one or more of the following factors:
- Overwork: Working too many hours per week, week after week, can contribute to mental exhaustion. Anyone can put in a long spurt from time to time, but many employees feel compelled to regularly overwork themselves.
- Decision-making: Anytime you make a decision—any sort of decision, even something as small as what to have for lunch or what to wear to work—you use a part of the brain that is like a muscle. Over time, that muscle tires out and needs rest. If it doesn’t get it, you may experience mental exhaustion.
- Stress: Big, stressful events in our lives, like a loss or change of a job, a death in the family, or a move, can trigger mental exhaustion, but lower-level, chronic stress can do the same. If you’re regularly managing a lot on your plate and you’re not taking enough time for rest and relaxation, this could be what’s affecting you.
- Over-committing: You know those times when it feels like every day you have way too much going on? If you’re having trouble keeping up, or you just want to hide at home with a pillow over your head, you’ve over-committed and are at risk for mental exhaustion.
- Perfectionism: If everything you do has to be perfect, you’re likely to burn yourself out. Perfectionism can also lead to decision paralysis, and indecision is particularly exhausting.
- Procrastination: You may think you’re going easy on yourself by procrastinating on a project, but procrastination is actually more tiring for your brain than actually doing The brain continues to think about the project and worry about it, increasing anxiety and cognitive load.
- Attention shifts: If you’re regularly interrupted while working, that can increase your risk of mental exhaustion. Every time you have to shift your attention from one thing to another, it demands more energy from the brain, both to shift your attention, and to shift it back to your original project once the interruption is over.
- Health problems: Diseases and health issues can cause mental exhaustion, particularly if they require extensive medical treatment, increase stress, or interfere with sleep.
- Lack of sleep: The brain actually cleans itself out during sleep, so if it doesn’t get enough time to do this optimally, it’s likely to suffer the next day and on any day after you fail to get a good night’s sleep.
Researchers reported in a 2011 study that “prolonged cognitive load”—which is any activity that requires extended periods of focus, concentration, thinking, and/or problem-solving—could lead to mental fatigue.
How Mental Exhaustion Creates Physical Exhaustion
Recent research has discovered that mental exhaustion can affect not only your brain but your body, too.
For a 2009 study, for instance, scientists had participants ride a stationary bicycle under two conditions:
- Once when they were mentally fatigued after undergoing a challenging 90-minute mental task that required quick reaction, close attention, and the ability to inhibit a response
- Once when they were mentally rested
Both times, the participants were physically well rested, and they all drank the same amount and had the same meal before each of the sessions.
During the exercise time, scientists tracked oxygen consumption, heart rate, cardiac output, blood pressure, and more. They motivated the participants by offering monetary prizes for the best performance on both the mental and physical tasks. After the experiments, the participants filled out surveys measuring their motivation and perceived effort.
Results showed that the mentally fatigued participants stopped exercising 15 percent earlier, on average, than the rested participants. The scientists concluded that the brain was responsible for the difference, stating that mental fatigue likely lowered the brain’s inhibition against quitting, and that mental fatigue could also affect dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a large role in motivation and effort.
Other research has linked mental and physical fatigue. In a 2014 study, Australian and Belgian researchers examined the theory that when you do something mentally taxing, your brain burns through glucose, the body’s fuel. As levels of glucose drops, levels of adenosine rise.
Adenosine is a natural chemical that plays a lot of roles, but in the brain, it acts as a neurotransmitter responsible for promoting sleep and keeping you calm. The longer you’re awake, the more adenosine builds up in your system, encouraging you to rest. Adenosine also blocks the release of dopamine, one of the brain’s motivational chemicals, so the higher the adenosine levels, the less motivated you are to do anything.
The theory goes that the more you tax your brain, the more glucose it burns, which makes adenosine levels rise. That, in turn, saps your motivation and makes you physically tired.
In their study, the scientists found evidence to back up this theory, confirming that how energized (or tired) you feel can have a lot to do with your brain. That’s actually good news because we can do something about that.
Nootropic Supplements that Improve Energy and Motivation
If you have a demanding lifestyle that isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon, you have several options for supporting brain health and boosting energy and motivation. Just like you may take zinc to ward off a cold or probiotics to support healthy digestion, you can take supplements known as “nootropics” to help your brain cope with an increased cognitive load.
Below are seven of the best options:
Choline is an essential nutrient required for a number of bodily functions, and particularly for optimal brain function. It helps the brain produce acetylcholine, which is necessary for mental focus and learning. In fact, if you’re not getting enough choline, you may suffer from memory problems or other cognitive impairments, and you may even be at a greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
In a 2011 study, researchers reported that those participants who were getting enough choline in their diets performed better on verbal memory and visual memory tasks, and demonstrated better cognitive performance overall.
There are actually multiple types of choline you can take. Standard choline supplements can improve levels of acetylcholine, thereby improving memory, learning, and focus. You can also try alpha-glycerophosphocholine (A-GPC), which is a natural choline compound found in the brain that’s associated not only with improved memory and focus but with faster recovery after exercise.
Another option is citicoline, a combination of choline and cytidine, which supplies choline to the brain and may also help to increase dopamine release. This is a good option if you’re looking for help with attention, focus, motivation, and concentration.
This is a naturally occurring amino acid made in the liver and/or gained from animal protein in the diet. It helps to produce cellular energy, which has made it popular among athletes, but it can also enhance brain function and increase mental energy.
Just like the body’s cells need creatine to produce energy, the brain’s cells do as well. When you’re getting the supply you need, the brain’s cells tend to be more efficient.
In a 2018 review, researchers analyzed six studies involving nearly 300 individuals and found that creatine supplements could help improve short-term memory and intelligence/reasoning in healthy individuals, as well as in stressed and aging individuals.
Vegetarians and vegans who don’t consume animal proteins may find themselves low in creatine and would be likely to benefit from creatine supplements.
3. Rhodiola Rosea
This herb comes from a perennial flowering plant that is native to the cold, Arctic regions of Europe, Asia, and North America. The root contains compounds that can be helpful for boosting energy.
Rhodiola rosea is considered an “adaptogenic” herb, which means it can help your body lessen the damage that develops because of stress. It’s been traditionally used to treat anxiety and fatigue, and today is associated with increased resistance to stress and improving symptoms of burnout.
In a 2017 study, researchers gave individuals who said they were burned out about 400 mg of Rhodiola rosea per day for 12 weeks. Results showed that several symptoms had improved after only one week of treatment, and continued to improve throughout the end of the study.
This herb is known to help inhibit enzymes that break down our good-mood neurotransmitters—dopamine and serotonin among them. That means it not only improves energy but prevents brain fog and fatigue, too.
This is another natural amino acid that has a calming, relaxing effect on the brain, helping to ease anxiety and stress. When you want energy, you may think that a calming nootropic isn’t a good option, but studies have actually found that l-theanine helps promote cognitive function. So if you need to focus during a stressful day, this may be a good choice.
L-theanine is thought to affect levels of neurotransmitters in the brain including serotonin and dopamine, which may be why it has a positive effect on mental function. In a 2012 study, researchers had participants perform a sustained attention task while taking different supplements on four different days:
- A combination of both
- A placebo
Results showed that those taking the placebo made more mistakes the longer they worked on the task, but those taking caffeine or theanine had significantly reduced error rates. The combination treatment didn’t work any better than either treatment alone, which means that theanine could be a good option in place of caffeine.
In a 2016 review, researchers concluded that L-theanine could improve attention and reaction times. Though it is an amino acid, the body doesn’t produce it—we have to get it from our diet. Green and black teas are some of the best sources, or you can try supplements.
Tyrosine is another amino acid nootropic that’s necessary for the production of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. The brain needs all three of these for working memory, multi-tasking, and cognitive flexibility, as well as to help promote good mood and mental focus.
Stress can deplete the brain’s supply of these important chemicals, so if you’re stressed out and suffering mentally because of it, l-tyrosine can help. It helps boost levels of these neurotransmitters while promoting improved communication between them.
Several studies have shown the brain benefits of l-tyrosine. In 2013, scientists reported that it helped improve working memory during a challenging mental task, and in 2015, they reported that it also helped improve cognitive control.
One study even found that tyrosine could help after a poor night’s sleep. Those sleep-deprived participants who took it were able to stay alert for three hours longer than those who didn’t take it.
You can get tyrosine from food sources like chicken, turkey, fish, and dairy products, but it’s also available in supplement form.
6. Phosphatidylserine (PS)
Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid (fatty molecule) that occurs naturally in the body—with particularly high concentrations in the brain. It contains both amino acids and fatty acids. Because of the fatty acids, it helps build healthy cell membranes, while the amino acids perform many other functions.
In addition to keeping cells healthy, PS seems to be able to help enhance the way the brain uses glucose for energy production. In a small study on Alzheimer’s patients, scientists found that 500 mg daily for three weeks helped boost the metabolic rate in the brain (the “energy burn”).
Other research indicates that PS may help enhance memory performance, to such an extent that it may help improve symptoms of dementia. In fact, the FDA now allows supplement companies to make claims associated with improving age-related cognitive decline when advertising PS.
This nootropic has many other benefits associated with it, including helping children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, easing symptoms of depression, and speeding post-workout recovery. If you’re looking for a good all-around brain-boosting supplement, this one might well be it.
Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR) is another amino acid that can increase mental and physical energy. It helps make acetylcholine (mentioned above), boosts neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, and increases blood flow to the brain.
This supplement has become popular because it works well at improving focus and concentration. It increases oxygen uptake in the brain, which naturally improves overall mental performance, particularly supporting mental clarity, focus, processing speed, and mood.
Yet the amount of carnitine in our tissues actually declines with age, which can affect the integrity of the energy-producing cells. Animal studies have actually found that supplementation with ALCAR helped reduce mitochondrial decay and improved memory performance.
You can find ALCAR in over-the-counter dietary supplements. It’s also present in beef and in smaller levels in chicken, dairy products, fish, beans, and avocados.
Don’t Suffer from Mental Exhaustion
The best option when experiencing mental exhaustion is to take a break. Go on a vacation if possible, or spend a few days getting more time in nature. If that’s impossible, though, the supplements listed above can help. Always talk with your doctor before trying new supplements, then choose the one you think will work best for you and give it a try.
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With over 20 years as a professional writer/editor in the health and wellness industry, Colleen M. Story has authored thousands of articles for publications like “Healthline” and “Women’s Health;” worked with high-profile clients like Gerber Baby Products and Kellogg’s; and ghostwritten books on back pain, nutrition, healthy diet, and cancer recovery. She’s also an award-winning author of both novels and non-fiction books, and a frequent motivational speaker inspiring people from all walks of life to overcome modern-day challenges and find creative fulfillment. Find more at her author website and her LinkedIn profile, or follow her on Twitter.