Are you tired of being tired? Fatigue and low energy are common in our fast-paced society, however it is not normal to experience ongoing exhaustion. If we want to get the most out of every day, solving the underlying cause of fatigue should be a priority. When exploring the potential reasons for low energy, there are a few main culprits we see in clinic, which are explored in this article.
Blood Sugar Control & Nutrient Density
The basics can’t be neglected when it comes to feeling energised. Skipping meals, eating erratically, consuming too much sugar or snacking too often can send blood sugars out of kilter. To ensure we our building out our plates correctly for optimal blood sugar control, the following must be considered:
- Quality proteins: organic grass-fed meat, poultry, pastured eggs, organic non GMO tempeh & tofu;
- Healthy fats: Olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, butter, coconut products, chia seeds, nuts & seeds & avocado;
- Non-starchy vegetables: pumpkin, broccoli, leafy greens, carrot, zucchini;
- Complex carbohydrates: rice, quinoa, legumes, starchy wholefoods (sweet potato, potato, beetroot), quality gluten-free, fermented bread.
The amounts of each will depend on age, gender, activity level and metabolic health. A good test to check if you’re building out your plate correctly, is to gauge your satiety. A main meal should keep you full for at least, if not longer, than three (3) hours after eating. Allowing an extended period of time between meals promotes digestive ease and good blood sugar control which leads to sustained energy without the peaks and troughs experienced by erratic snacking and poor meal timing.
Key Vitamin & Minerals
Vitamins and minerals play a crucial role in maintaining our body’s structural and biochemical integrity. The foods we eat directly affect the levels of these within our body and we know that they play essential roles in a variety of basic metabolic pathways supporting cellular energy production. We also know that their involvement in metabolism, DNA synthesis, oxygen transport, and neural functions makes them critical for brain and muscular function. Let’s look at some key vitamins and minerals that influence our energy:
The B vitamins comprise a group of eight water soluble vitamins that perform essential roles in cellular functioning. Their collective effects are particularly prevalent to numerous aspects of brain function, including energy production, DNA/RNA synthesis/repair and methylation.
Adequate supply of each B vitamin is required for the appropriate functioning of our energy systems. A shortfall in any one of these vitamins has effects on energy production, with potentially severe metabolic and health consequences. For example, anemia can have other nutrition-related origins besides just iron deficiencies. There is evidence that inadequate supply of certain B vitamins, primarily vitamins B6, B9 and B12, can lead to anemia.
We also know that vitamin B12 plays important cardiovascular and cognitive function roles within the body and is responsible for the breakdown of homocysteine. For example, high homocysteine levels have been linked with a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive decline. This leads us to iron…
Low iron or iron deficiencies are common causes of low energy. The average adult stores about 1-3 grams of iron in their body. A fine balance between dietary uptake and loss maintains this balance. About 1 mg of iron is lost every day through the sloughing of cells from skin and mucosal surfaces, including the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Menstruation also increases the average daily iron loss to about 2 mg per day in females. Children, adolescents, those following a vegetarian or vegan diet, women of reproductive age and pregnant women are some of the groups most vulnerable to experiencing low iron.
Iron deficiency can exist with or without anaemia and even mild forms of iron deficiency can be associated with functional impairments affecting cognitive development, immunity and quality of life. In clinic we request full iron studies, not just ferritin alone, which includes hemoglobin, transferrin, transferrin saturation, ferritin and iron. This provides a complete picture of iron status and helps guide treatment protocols. In addition, we use specific pathology reference ranges depending on gender, whether a female is on contraception and if a client is pregnant, what trimester they are in.
At The Natural Nutritionist we work with many clients experiencing low energy as a result of suboptimal iron status, however it’s important to acknowledge that treating low iron also involves the consideration of many factors. Some of these include: heavy menstrual bleeding, increased iron loss through intense or endurance exercise, suboptimal thyroid status, the integrity of the gut and co-factors including vitamin A (retinol), copper and magnesium which assist with iron restoration through the mechanisms of red blood cell production, intestinal absorption of iron and iron transport around the body.
Vitamin D is a hormone normally produced in the skin using energy from the sunlight. Vitamin D can also be found in several foods including fish, cod liver oil, egg yolks and mushrooms that have been soaked in the sun. Low energy or fatigue is a common symptom of vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D seems to help mitochondria, the part of cells in the body that generate energy, power various systems of the body. The thinking, then, is that a lack of vitamin D may impact mitochondrial function, causing fatigue.
For those of us living in colder climates or places where it is difficult to get sunlight, it’s important to get your vitamin D levels tested and if low, consider speaking with one of our team who can advise on supplementation.
Training & Movement
Both too much or not enough exercise can be stressful for the body and affect our energy levels. In particular, we need to pay attention to the type of exercise we are doing. One of the reasons for HIIT’s popularity is the post-exercise calorie burn. The post-exercise period is called “EPOC”, which stands for excess post exercise oxygen consumption. This is generally about a 2-hour period after an exercise where the body is restoring itself to pre-exercise levels, and thus using more energy. Studies have shown HIIT results in an increase in metabolism, improved cardiovascular fitness and improved muscle tone along with weight loss.
But are high intensity workouts always beneficial? The short answer is no. If you’re regularly feeling run down, struggling to recover from sessions, losing muscle mass, gaining fat, struggling to sleep or feeling exhausted all the time, then you should consider alternative movement such as low intensity weight session, yoga, Pilates or a walk, or perhaps be strategic with when you plan your sessions throughout the week.
Periodising your training is important to not only avoid burnout and fatigue, but to allow your muscles to recover, grow and adapt.
HPA Axis Support
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), is a term used to represent the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands. The HPA axis plays an important role in the body’s response to stress. The pathway of the axis results in the production of cortisol.
When a chronic stressor is perceived, the hypothalamus releases Corticotrophin Releasing Factor (CRF) and this is transported by the blood stream to the pituitary gland which then produces Adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). This is also transported by the bloodstream to the adrenal glands. The cortex of the adrenal glands produces corticosteroids, the most important being cortisol.
Cortisol production is normally at its highest 30 minutes after waking and declines steadily during the day, reaching its lowest point at bedtime. Those with adrenal gland dysfunction generally have irregularities in their diurnal cortisol curves.
Cortisol is stress hormone and if we are faced with an acute stressor like giving a presentation or being chased by a wild animal our cortisol goes up. Persistent increased cortisol is detrimental for our health and can lead to chronic stress, to chronic fatigue and then eventually burnout with symptoms including day-long fatigue, irritability, food cravings, insomnia and exhaustion.
Some ways we can support our HPA axis include:
- Avoid screens upon rising;
- Ensure early morning sun exposure onto the eyeballs;
- Decrease overall screen exposure;
- Wear blue blockers at night e.g. Baxter Blue;
- Add 10 minutes of breath work or meditation before bed – try 1 Giant Mind or Insight Timer;
- Reduce caffeine intake to 2 serves/day, ideally consumed with food at around 10am.
Community, Boundaries & Social Expectations
In this world of social media, many of us struggle to switch off or disengage from devices. The internet is a fantastic tool, however scrolling and spending too much time online comparing our lives to others can be exhausting. If you find you are checking social media too often, allocate a certain amount of time each day to check your socials and perhaps set an alarm on your phone to remind you when you’ve reached your limit.
Being part of a real life community (away from social media), can have a positive effect on mental health and emotional wellbeing. Community involvement provides a sense of belonging and social connectedness. A cohort study revealed weaker community belonging exhibited an association with poorer general and mental health.
Community can also bring extra meaning and purpose to everyday life. Perhaps it’s your local coffee shop where you see the same people each day. Aim to connect in meaningful conversation with those around you and support one another in simple ways – a smile goes a long way!
Finally, there are many benefits from setting boundaries to reduce stress. These can include boundaries in work, relationships, family and any other obligations. If you find yourself saying yes to things you’d rather not be saying yes to or working at your computer all hours of the night, then you might need to set in place some boundaries for yourself.
If you are struggling with low energy and would like support, I would love to work with you. Having experienced and resolved my own low iron and nutrient deficiencies, I understand just how much these underlying factors can zap your energy if not addressed.
Book in for a complimentary 15-minute consultation so we can take the next steps together.
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