One of the most common problems we see in our clinic is physical fatigue and poor energy provision. This problem can range from being a minor inconvenience all the way through to significantly impacting upon our day to day quality of life.
So what actually causes fatigue? Unfortunately there is no simple answer to this question but what we do know is that in general, physical fatigue is usually precipitated by a reduction in mitochondrial function (the energy-producing engines in the cells) and a lowered production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) — the molecules that deliver energy to cells throughout the body.
Whilst there are many factors that can impact upon these two variables, arguably the most significant are those negative lifestyle behaviours that drain us of energy and leave us feeling flat, exhausted and fatigued.
Below are some of the primary energy zapping culprits that are important to be aware of and address if you are experiencing anything less than optimal energy:
Being physically inactive results in a reduction in muscle mass which in turn reduces the volume of mitochondria, meaning our body’s energy production drops. Furthermore, inactivity also results in less circulating ATP, further sapping us of energy. To compound the issue, being inactive also results in a weakening and shrinking of our muscles, causing them to use energy less efficiently.
Physical activity strengthens muscles, helps them become more efficient and conserves ATP, whilst also increasing the production of energy-producing brain chemicals. Thus one of the most important lifestyle changes we can make to ramp up our energy levels is to initiate and sustain a regular exercise regime. Even adding in an extra 10-minutes of walking per day has been shown to increase the body’s energy producing capacity, so we don’t need to initiate a drastic exercise plan. Just simply aim to up your daily levels of movement, including activities such as gardening, walking, and using the stairs more.
2. Too much stress
Chronic stress can increase levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol reduces the production of ATP and increases inflammation, which further reduces ATP production, meaning our cells receive less energy stimulating molecules. Stress-reduction techniques have been clinically proven to significantly lower cortisol, resulting in a corresponding increase in ATP and thus heightened cellular energy production.
Try to embed activities such as yoga, mindfulness meditation, tai chi, breathing exercises or guided imagery into your daily life to combat any fatigue issues you may be experiencing. Indeed, just spending 10 minutes per day engaged in such behaviours has been shown to noticeably increase energy levels and offset fatigue. Alternatively, try using powerful adaptogenic herbs such as Ashwaghanda. As we overview in our Online Diploma in Herbal Medicine, adaptogenic herbs such as Ashwaghanda are clinically proven to buffer against the damaging effects of stress whilst increasing physical energy and vitality.
3. Poor diet
If you're not properly nourishing your body with whole food nutrition, you won't have the vitamins and minerals necessary to produce enough ATP, meaning that you’ll feel more tired. Eating too much processed food can increase inflammation, which further impairs the production of ATP and energy. Likewise, if your appetite is poor and you are not eating a sufficient quantity of food (a common problem in older adults), you may not be giving your body the calories and fuel it needs to function. However, it is also vital to ensure that you are not over-eating. Doing so causes significant hikes in blood sugar which is a proven cause of fatigue.
So what is the fix? Simply aim to primarily eat whole foods, including vegetables, fruits, nut, seeds and whole grains in abundance, alongside smaller portions of lean protein like wild caught fish and lean cuts of white meat. The fatty acids in protein-rich foods also help boost ATP.
4. Too little sleep
A lack of sleep increases cortisol and also promotes inflammation. If sleep issues are caused by sleep apnea (pauses in breathing during sleep), the dips in blood oxygen levels can significantly reduce ATP and have a quite drastic effect on energy and vitality. If your sleep is poor, it is important to speak with your doctor about underlying problems that may be responsible, such as sleep apnea, frequent urination or medication side effects.
Irrespective of the cause, try to work on improving sleep hygiene: go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, and keep your room cool, quiet, and free of electronics which can stimulate your brain. You can also try to implement sleep inducing evening routines such as having relaxing herbal baths before bed using lavender or rosemary essential oils, sipping on valerian tea drinking warm milk (dairy or non-dairy) mixed with 1 tsp of Ashwagandha .
5. Poor fluid choices
Drinking sugary drinks and alcohol can cause blood sugar spikes followed by significant blood sugar drops that causes fatigue. Simply being dehydrated in general can also make you feel tired, as can drinking too much alcohol or caffeinated drinks near bedtime (alcohol interrupts sleep in the middle of the night). There are no hard and fast rules to ens
uring optimal hydration as everyone assimilates liquid at differing speeds. However, a simple approach is to ensure that when you wee, your urine is never darker than a light straw colour and crucially, that there is no odour to the urine. Try replacing afternoon coffee with healthy herbal teas and try cutting out all alcohol for 2-weeks to see what impact this has upon energy levels.
Whilst fatigue is a confusing and multi-factorial problem, addressing the above five issues will help to ensure that your body’s energy systems are not being hampered by poor lifestyle choices. However, if fatigue is accompanied by any other symptoms like headaches, muscle or joint pain, fever, weight loss or stomach or urinary problems, organise to see your GP to ensure there are no underlying health concerns that may be responsible.