Our society glamorizes hard work and fast-paced lifestyles. It’s no wonder that many of us feel burned out and tired. There is an entire industry to boost our energy, from caffeinated drinks to vitamin B supplements. But these solutions are merely treating the symptoms. When nearly 70 percent of all Americans feel fatigued at work, no matter how many cups of coffee they drink. And that fatigue goes beyond tiredness. It slows our metabolism, kills our focus, and contributes to depression and stress.
What’s really causing our chronic fatigue? Why do we still experience it even if we get enough rest (or caffeine)? The problem is that fatigue is widely misunderstood and dismissed. By discovering the root causes, perhaps we can start to feel better and dump the energy drinks and pills.
Fatigue… more than a symptom
Fatigue is often a symptom of a larger health problem, whether a vitamin deficiency, mitochondrial dysfunction, and so on. But it is also a medical condition in its own right. It’s essentially an impairment of your body’s energy production system.
The problem is that healthcare professionals don’t always treat fatigue as a condition. Many illnesses cause fatigue as the body struggles to kick out pathogens or recover from cell damage. It makes sense to look for an underlying problem.
But when fatigue becomes chronic, it’s much more difficult to diagnose and treat. Many physicians will advise getting more sleep, taking B vitamins, and so on. Those are always good ideas, but are they solving the core problem? After all, if chronic fatigue affects 107 million Americans, surely there’s something more to it than a lack of sleep.
Contrary to popular belief, fatigue is not only caused by sleep deprivation, although that’s certainly a factor. Poor sleep quality can exacerbate fatigue as well. However, fatigue is more than tiredness. Why are our cells struggling to produce energy?
Causes of Fatigue
When you’re stressed or alarmed, your adrenal gland releases cortisol to stimulate your body’s defenses. This, along with a jolt of adrenaline, gives you the “fight or flight” response. While that helped our ancestors escape saber-toothed cats, this evolutionary adaptation isn’t meant for constant use. If we’re chronically stressed, our system is flooded with cortisol.
Also, the adrenal gland is responsible for modulating our blood sugar levels, immunity, and yes, sleep. So if it’s constantly being drained by that chronic “fight or flight” mode, it will be impaired in its other functions. In short, chronic stress can lower your sleep quality and make you prone to infections — which, in turn, cause more fatigue in a vicious cycle.
Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that releases many crucial hormones. It’s particularly important for metabolism, as thyroid hormones stimulate digestion, glucose breakdown, and appetite. Obviously, all these processes affect your energy level. Many physicians will request thyroid tests for patients who complain of chronic fatigue.
Unfortunately, thyroid disorders are notoriously difficult to diagnose. While an estimated 20 million Americans have one, more than half are unaware of it. First, many thyroid disorders are misdiagnosed as mental illnesses, as the symptoms are often similar. And yes, fatigue is one of them! Doctors are often reluctant to order more thyroid tests if the basic TSH test is normal. The problem is that the TSH test only measures thyroid-stimulating hormone, not the levels of all metabolic hormones. The “normal” range is also very broad, leading many endocrinologists to call for new standards.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency
Our cells’ energy production relies on a delicate balance of neurotransmitters and enzymes. Molecules of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) store energy that powers every system in our body. In a process called cellular respiration, glucose is converted to pyruvic acid, which converts to acetyl coenzyme A that catalyzes the Krebs cycle. This happens in our mitochondria, which you may remember from school as the “powerhouses of the cell.” During this chain reaction, all the electrons released from the molecules join to form ATP.
The chain works best with the right micronutrients, which support the enzymes and carry electrons down the chain. Those micronutrients comprise vitamins and minerals.
Thiamine pyrophosphate (aka Vitamin B1), flavin mononucleotide (aka Vitamin B2), and biotin (Vitamin B7) fuel the Krebs cycle. Cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12) supports the nervous system. Iron makes up key components of the electron chain. And minerals such as magnesium, zinc, and chromium all help muscle and nerve cells signal each other.
There are many other vitamins and minerals that support our overall metabolism, including calcium and phosphorus. The problem is, many of us don’t obtain enough micronutrients. And that is largely due to our lifestyle and environment:
- U.S. soils where our produce is grown are nutrient-deficient.
- Processed foods contain fewer bioavailable nutrients and more toxins that stress our cells, as well as high levels of fructose, which destroy the mitochondrial enzymes.
- Excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption can impair the body’s absorption of vitamin B.
In short, our hectic lives are filled with fast, ultra-processed food. And when we do consume whole foods, we’re getting fewer nutrients from them. Add in poor habits and chronic stress, and we’re likely to develop deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals. These contribute to slow metabolism, anemia, depression, and yes, fatigue.
Lifestyle Choices to Overcome Fatigue
As we’re surrounded by synthetic chemicals and swept up in a fast-paced society, the best solution to our fatigue epidemic is to make serious structural changes to our agriculture and healthcare system. That will take some, though. For short-term relief of fatigue in your life, your best bet is to prioritize nutrition and eliminate stress and toxins as much as possible:
- Incorporate more whole foods, such as fresh produce, whole grains and legumes, sustainably raised meat, and wild-caught fish into your diet. Be wary of overcooking, which can zap nutrients from your food. Steaming, sautéing, and quick grilling will help retain vitamins in vegetables.
- Aim to eliminate ultra-processed foods from your diet entirely. Avoid ingredients with high levels of fructose or partially hydrogenated fats.
- Take time to de-stress. Unplug from your devices and spend time in nature, meditating, or practicing yoga (or all three!). Set clear boundaries between your work/school and the rest of your life.
- Cut back on the alcohol and coffee. Never quit cold turkey, but taper off your consumption and switch to lower-impact sources of energy and relaxation. Tip: try magnesium-rich foods such as almonds, whole grains, and avocado, and sip some black tea or kombucha rather than coffee. To relax in the evening, skip the wine and snack on some protein-rich cheese and melatonin-packing cherries, plus some chamomile tea or a glass of milk.
- Advocate for your health. We’ve all been socialized to accept what doctors say, and if we don’t have great access to healthcare, we may be reluctant to pursue further care. However, doctors are only human, and they make mistakes. If you suspect you have an underlying condition contributing to your fatigue, don’t be afraid to seek a second (or third) opinion. Look for holistic-minded physicians who consider your lifestyle, diet, and genetics — and who are willing to do further testing. If you’re severely nutrient-deficient, you may need prescription-strength doses of key vitamins and minerals to feel well again.
You deserve to have enough energy to fully pursue and embrace life. This world is too wonderful to be fatigued all the time! Together, we can break misconceptions about fatigue and promote a healthier lifestyle that contributes to our overall wellness.
This article was inspired by an interview with Evan Hirsch, world-renowned fatigue expert and founder/CEO of the International Center for Fatigue.