In my 20s, sleep was my last priority; not only was I uninterested in it, but I honestly didn’t seem to need that much of it. Despite working seven days a week, I still had the energy to stay out most nights until well past midnight and wake up early to hit the gym before heading into the office. Sure, I woke up with makeup smeared all over my pillow and relied on coffee so heavily it was essentially my signature accessory, but somehow, I lived that way for the better part of a decade.
Now I look back on those days and mostly I think: How?! and Why tho?! Now, despite being in bed before 11 p.m., trying to squeeze a gym sesh in before work is a rarity; virtually every time my alarm goes off, that extra hour of sleep wins out. It’s not just a me thing, either: Now, when I text my friends to see if they want to meet up after work on Friday, the response I’m usually met with is, “Sure, but can it be around 6?” And the women I know who are older and going through perimenopause and menopause often complain about being tired all the time.
To find out if energy depletion and aging are inevitably linked, I called up women’s health physician and The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution author, Aviva Romm, MD. What she told me, I’ll admit, took me by surprise.
Technically, no: Feeling more tired as you get older isn’t inevitable
Dr. Romm says that physiologically, there’s no reason why it should be harder to get up in the morning at 45 or 55 than it is at 25. “Often, people do feel more tired as they get older, but it’s because they’re not getting enough sleep, eating right, or exercising regularly, not because they’re older,” she says. In other words, the culprit comes down to lifestyle, not age. The lifestyle reasons are long and varied; everything from having kids to a more demanding job.
“The amount of sleep we need really doesn’t change until we’re over 65,” Dr. Romm says. She explains that adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep a night (it varies a little depending on the person), but older adults actually feel rested with a bit less, seven to eight hours. But there’s no scientific evidence that sleep needs change between your 20s and the three decades that follow.
“Something I often see with patients is that as they get older [in their 30s and 40s], they don’t exercise as much because life demands more from them in other areas,” Dr. Romm says. “Exercising regularly gives you more energy because the more muscle you maintain, the more mitochondria you produce, and the mitochondria affects how much energy you have,” she explains. “Exercising also helps with oxygen flow, getting more oxygen to your brain, which also helps with energy levels.” Clearly she’s not going to give me the out I was looking for when it came to skipping my morning workouts.
Still, I pressed Dr. Romm on another front: what about when women hit perimenopause and menopause? Even then was there no physiological reason to feel more tired? “Some of the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause can disrupt sleep, such as hot flashes, so that can lead to women feeling more tired, because their sleep is interrupted,” she says. Once again, the culprit was actually disrupted sleep, not age.
Surprising factors that can make you feel more tired
Lifestyle factors aside, Dr. Romm says there are a few factors affecting energy levels people may not be aware of. For women, she says it’s 100-percent normal to feel an energy drop in the days before getting your period, and in the first few days you have it. “This is a big reoccurring factor for why women can feel tired,” she says. “Some women especially have really heavy periods, which can lead to very low levels of iron and that’s definitely going to lead to feeling more tired.”
Check out this video for tips on what to eat before and during your period to help get your energy levels back up:
Dr. Romm adds that there are some societal factors that can disproportionately affect women’s energy levels. “Researchers have studied this, and the emotional work of being a woman is greater than it is for a man,” she says. “For example, in a work meeting, women [often] exert energy managing others’ emotions, something the men in the room aren’t likely doing.” She also points out that in heterosexual couples, many women who work outside the home still take on the majority of the responsibilities when it comes to parenting and managing the household, which of course can be exhausting. But again, these factors aren’t technically tied to the aging process.
Besides the psychological reasons that can lead to fatigue, Dr. Romm says there’s a wide range of physiological reasons for fatigue, too. Experiencing digestive problems, being low in certain vitamins and nutrients (especially iron and protein), and hormonal imbalances can all lead to energy depletion, she says. If you think a physical reason is the culprit, Dr. Romm recommends working with an MD to get to the bottom of it, so they can run tests to see if you are low in any critical nutrients.
All of this is to say, if you find yourself feeling more exhausted than you used to, the reason isn’t just because you’re a few years older. It’s worth it to work with a physician who can run tests—to make sure it’s not your thyroid or another medical issue—and can also help you examine what lifestyle factors could be the culprits. And if, like me, you look forward to bedtime more now than the wild years of your youth, it’s only going to work in your favor.
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