One of the most common complaints by many people is fatigue and lack of energy. The purpose of this article is for you to become aware that ongoing fatigue is not normal, and for you to identify abnormalities in your body that may need further treatment.
The feeling of fatigue can be mental or physical, and for some people rest may not resolve it. There are many reasons for feelings of fatigue and low energy, and it may be as simple as not getting enough sleep, dietary deficiencies, stress, boredom or as a result of pushing yourself physically1.
Quality sleep is of utmost priority to allow our bodies well-earned rest and repair of cells and our body systems. It should never be underestimated. If sleep is broken or disturbed this will ultimately affect your energy levels throughout the day. After all, will your mobile phone work without recharging its batteries?
Improving your energy levels is quite often achievable by changing your lifestyle and dietary habits. This includes getting quality sleep (see Robyn Chuter’s article here for top 10 tips for a better sleep), correcting poor dietary deficiencies, incorporating stress management techniques and generally not pushing yourself above your limits.
However, fatigue can be complex when it is ongoing and not relieved by rest, as it may be the result of an underlying medical condition. There are many possible reasons for this, but the four main types of fatigue can be put into the following categories-
- Iron deficiency anaemia
- Adrenal fatigue
- Thyroid metabolic fatigue
- Mitochondrial fatigue1
Iron deficiency anaemia
According to the World Health Organisation, iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies, with around 80% of the world population being iron deficient, 30% of those with iron deficiency anaemia. Women of childbearing age are at the most risk due to menstruation and higher requirements during pregnancy2.
There are many symptoms of iron deficiency with the most well known being fatigue, amongst others including-
Causes of iron deficiency anaemia may include dietary deficiency of iron, lack of co-factors for iron utilisation such as folate and Vitamin B12, or digestive problems impairing absorption such as coeliac disease1 and low stomach acid, which is required for mineral absorption. Treatment of iron deficiency anaemia involves supplementing the diet with iron rich foods and cofactors for its absorption, correcting the iron deficiency with the use of a supplement, as well as repairing the gut and optimizing stomach acid secretions if necessary. Iron absorption can also be impaired by polyphenols in tea, coffee and wine, so it is best to have these away from meals or supplements3.
Never take iron supplements for the sake of it, or if you simply suspect your levels may be low. Iron is a mineral that can cause harm if taken in excess when you are not deficient3. Deficiency can be assessed with the use of ‘Iron studies’ pathology testing from your GP.
The adrenal glands are a pair of endocrine gland sitting on top of the kidneys, with one of their major roles in the body being the release of particular hormones as a result of stimulation by stressful circumstance. When stress levels are high and ongoing, the adrenal glands cannot keep up with the demands for these hormones and as a result become fatigued.
Some of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue may include-
-Cravings for sweet and/or salty foods
-Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety or irritability
-Low blood pressure
-Poor immune function
A proper diagnosis can be undertaken by your GP, by looking at two major adrenal hormones, cortisol and DHEA. Cortisol levels are most accurately assessed by a 24-hour salivary hormone test, and DHEA by blood.
Treatment of the adrenal fatigue will firstly involve stress management techniques and rest and recovery. It is important to restore function to the adrenal glands; this can be done with the assistance of herbs such as Licorice, Rehmannia and Withania and nutrients such as Vitamin C, Vitamin B1 and B5.
Thyroid metabolic fatigue
Deficiency of active thyroid hormones leads to low thyroid function and is another cause of ongoing or unexplained fatigue. The key difference between hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue is that a person with thyroid dysfunction will sleep well but wake unrefreshed1.
Other symptoms may include-
-Weight gain or trouble losing weight
-Dry, coarse hair and dry skin1
Diagnosis for hypothyroidism must be assessed by your GP, with the use of testing all of the necessary thyroid hormones in a pathology test. The causes of this are vast and include but are not limited to stress, genetic predisposition and dietary deficiencies such as Iodine, Selenium and Zinc to name a few.
The treatment of this involves assessing the cause, supplementing with nutrients to optimise thyroid function, and for some people prescribed medication may be necessary.
Mitochondrial fatigue refers to fatigue that occurs as a result of a lack of intracellular energy, and can often be debilitating. The mitochondria are bodies inside cells that are often referred to as cellular ‘powerhouses’4, and are responsible for producing energy from the carbohydrates, fats and proteins that we eat1.
This type of fatigue is mostly unknown to the medical profession, as there are insufficient methods to diagnose it. It most commonly occurs as a result of dietary deficiencies1, and treatment will include correcting these and promoting energy on a cellular level.
While fatigue that is ongoing has many different causes, it is most certainly treatable when the underlying cause is established. While it may seem tempting to use caffeine, alcohol or energy drinks to give yourself a short-lived boost, this will not fix the underlying problem, and rest and recovery should always be your number one priority. Please do not self diagnose any of these disorders listed above, or attempt treating yourself if you feel that you may be suffering from a medical condition.
Only you can make changes to promote energy within your body with dietary and lifestyle habits that best suit you. Start your day with a positive affirmation to fill your body with energy for the day ahead-
“ My body is filled with a constant flow of energy and I choose where that energy is channelled. I listen to my body and am aware of its needs for rest and regeneration.”
1. Hywood, A, 2011, Integria healthcare webinar, Endocrine Master Class: Fatigue and the Energy Crisis
2. Andrews, C. 2005, Maintaining Iron Status, MH Enhance: A Nutritional Perspective, Issue No.5
3. Osiecki, H. The Nutrient Bible 7th Ed, AG Publishing, Australia.
4. Tortora, G.J, Derrickson, B. 2009, Principles of Anatomy and Physiology 12th Edition, John Wiley and Sons Inc, USA.
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