The telltale signs that you're completely drained – and how to recharge
Are you on top of your cellular housekeeping? If you’ve fallen into a midlife energy slump, hit by fatigue, low mood and shredded libido, your cells have likely run out of charge, says Dr Molly Maloof. A “professional biohacker” and former Stanford University lecturer, she now works with Silicon Valley head honchos, A-listers and common folk to assess mitochondrial function (“the batteries in our cells that power life”), and help them make the requisite lifestyle tweaks to reignite that lost midlife spark.
“We are collectively experiencing a human energy crisis, and at its root, the fatigue that plagues so many of us is a result of mitochondrial dysfunction,” Maloof explains. The goal here is boosting healthspan - the years of good, healthy living, as opposed to just living longer.
Maloof does that by biohacking - a term that may sound disconcertingly high-tech but doesn’t need to be, she says. All it means is monitoring individual aspects of your body - from sleep to blood sugar and blood pressure, for instance - keeping track of how they change for the better or worse, and identifying the lifestyle factors that may be contributing to that.
“Yes, there are still some high-tech gadgets that are out of reach for many of us, but the old ways… are often as useful as, if not more useful than, the new,” says Maloof. On sleep, for instance, you can go analogue (noting down how many hours you're getting) or opt for a souped-up smartwatch that delineates your rest, respiration and heart rate throughout the night. Whichever route you pick, here's how to spot the slump, make the necessary changes, and reboot your cells for a more energised 2023.
Spotting the signs
Maloof is unequivocal about the reason so many people lose their spark in midlife. “Frankly, it's a consequence of our lifestyles,” she says. A combination of people exercising less as they age, desk jobs, and the accumulation of years of wine at night and processed food during the day can “break the engines of the cells.”
There are telltale signs that you've hit the slump and your mitochondrial function (and, ultimately, energy) is diminished: becoming reliant on constant snacking, for example, or feeling disconnected from loved ones. This evaporation of "spark" doesn't just affect midlifers, but younger people, she adds, who may not realise the rapid biological effects of stressful work or home lives (premature greying is another giveaway).
Maloof has been there. As a medical student, she found herself permanently sedentary after having been an uber-fit teen; she no longer felt as happy, nor, like herself. She began monitoring her sleep, fitness and personal relationships, ensuring that sufficient time for each was worked into her day. That took her from average student to ranking in the 99th percentile of her exam cohort (and, later, designing a course at Stanford in which students were taught how to optimise their performance via lifestyle changes). “The equation is simple: greater energy = greater performance.”
Reboot your metabolic health
Much of that performance is driven by our metabolic health. “We need to get away from this concept of BMI being the most important biomarker… [as] a lot of people are metabolically unhealthy and not obese". (A slim person, for instance, could have elevated cholesterol and blood sugar levels, making them appear healthy on the outside, while being unhealthy on the inside.)
Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels can become more challenging as we age (and our cells degrade), with insulin resistance and pre-diabetes potential risks. One of Maloof’s clients - a woman in her sixties - had undertaken a series of blood tests in order to seriously evaluate her health, and found that “her triglycerides [a form of fat] were off the charts; her homeostyceine [a possible indicator of vitamin deficiency that elevates risk of heart disease and dementia] was really high.”
The woman was not an obvious candidate for struggling metabolism, weight-wise but, with a diet high in homebaked sourdough and a penchant for wine and fruit juice, her blood sugar levels showed otherwise. Dietary changes (saying goodbye to all of the above) coupled with exercise reduced both her weight and inflammation.
It’s not just about getting your metabolism functional, but flexible, Maloof says. The more your body can switch from burning carbs to fat, the more easily it can process food and avoid insulin resistance and fat storage.
What to do: Maloof suggests cutting out snacking and trying to go five hours between meals, to train your body to use body fat as a source of energy. Time restricted eating, with your first meal at 10am and last meal at 7pm, will also train your metabolism to become more flexible.
Hormesis occurs when a small stress is delivered to the body, and ultimately produces a positive effect. “When dosed properly, stress is beneficial because it sends signals to your mitochondria that they need to step up energy production to meet what might be an ongoing demand. The mitochondria comply, and you get more energy and greater capacity to handle stress.”
This requires careful attention, however, with Maloof warning against the tactics used by extreme biohackers who over-stress their bodies, ultimately causing reduced resilience. “When demand exceeds capacity, the body breaks down.”
What to do: Fast for 12 hours (16 if you can) each day, and then eat within only the given window; high intensity workouts with sufficient rest days afterwards (don’t HIIT train for more than 60-90 minutes per week), and try cold exposure, for example a cold plunge pool followed by a sauna.
The more energy our mitochondria are tasked with creating, the more they will continue to produce. So one gym session isn’t enough to kickstart that process, if you spend the entirety of the rest of the day sitting, Maloof says.
The first area of focus - particularly for over-50s, and especially for women, when oestrogen levels drop - should be weight training (“I advise women in this stage in life to lift heavy weights with fewer repetitions”) in order to maximise bone density and reduce the likelihood of osteoporosis and frailty later on. Factor in plyometrics too (activities which involve jumping, like skipping or hopping), as these “are great for strengthening bones and preserving power and speed.” Maloof advises keeping step count in the 7,500 - 11,000 range daily, or over-11,000 if you’re looking to rank as ‘very active’.
The second key area for maintaining movement is non-exercise activity thermogenesis (or NEAT) - minor tasks that expend energy. Then, prioritise inefficiency - like bringing in your shopping one bag at a time, and parking in the furthest spot from the supermarket entrance.
What to do: Fold the washing during TV ad breaks, tweak your wake-up time (“studies show that people in midlife who get up earlier tend to walk twenty to thirty more minutes than people who sleep in”), and employ the ‘three for thirty rule’, setting a reminder on your phone to move for three minutes every half hour. "True health is built by daily habits, and by consistency over time."
Men and women respond differently
Focusing on - and improving - individual areas such as cholesterol or sleep quality means our cells can generate more energy, and our healthspan can increase. Much of this requires factoring in our biology, and how that might be having an impact; stress, for example, can significantly lower women’s thyroid function (required to regulate metabolism, and thus energy); the issue is less pronounced in men.
Our chromosomes affect other areas too. Maloof found that after putting a range of her clients on the keto diet (high fat, low carb) men saw their weight drop and healthspan increase, but “my female clients weren’t getting the same results, because we have different biological imperatives.”
This is down to hormones shifting considerably during baby-making, child-rearing and menopausal years, and metabolic function often becoming dysfunctional as a result (men, meanwhile, have a more straightforward three life stages: “childhood, adulthood and senior years”).
Women are also disproportionately affected by oxytocin, or the “love hormone”, according to Maloof. It is, “one of the greatest factors we know in human health and happiness and longevity” - an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant that is “very protective to heart health. It's very protective to the mitochondria. So we need loving social relationships to thrive…. The simplest thing you can do to optimise your health is to actually just strengthen your social connections.”