Millions suffer from it, yet medicine struggles to define it. Fatigue is something we have all experienced in varying degrees.
Whether you have the occasional bout of low energy or the debilitating, life-interrupting condition known as chronic fatigue syndrome, there are plenty of natural remedies you can apply to help fight off fatigue.
Let’s take a closer look at what fatigue is, what causes it, and what you can do (starting today) to fight fatigue—and win.
What exactly is fatigue?
Fatigue is, quite simply, exhaustion.
It’s normal to have days when we feel tired. Those days, finding the source is simple: crying babies, a sick dog, a work deadline. But fatigue is more pervasive and can’t be reversed by simply getting a night or two of good sleep.
Symptoms of fatigue include:
- Chronic pain in joints and/or muscles
- Moodiness, irritability, anxiety, and/or depression (2)
- Weight gain or an inability to lose weight
- Headaches and dizziness
- Reduced or impaired immune system
- Slowed reflexes
- Chronic tiredness
- Difficulty learning, concentrating or remembering
In fact, fatigue is one of the most commonly reported symptoms, but the medical community offers no clear definition, diagnosis, or treatment.
They call it a “non-specific” symptom because it can be a symptom of any number of conditions and isn’t measurable by diagnostic testing. Essentially, fatigue has many causes and affects people in many different ways: physiologically, psychologically, and psychosocially. (1)
Measurable or not, you know it when you have it.
Fatigue prevents us from showing up fully for ourselves, our loved ones, and our lives.
Why do I Feel Fatigued?
In a word: stress.
But not just the emotional kind.
We’re talking about biological stress, which includes feelings and so much more. These stressors – whether food, feelings, or free radicals – tax the biological systems upon which we rely for good health.
See, all of our body systems (digestive, endocrine, immune, etc.) work together to metabolize, detox, manufacture, and regulate the countless substances that we encounter on a daily basis.
When our body systems are happy, we are healthy.
These systems, however, are sensitive to stress, and when faced with more than they can manage, start to burn out. The result is any number of physiological imbalances that can leave you feeling fatigued, including:
- Poor gut health and/or ”leaky gut”
- Heavy metal or mold toxicity
- Essential vitamin/mineral deficiencies (B vitamins, iron, Vitamin D, magnesium, potassium, etc.)
- Hormonal imbalances (cortisol, progesterone, thyroid hormones, etc.)
- Oxidative damage
What causes these imbalances? There are 5 main culprits in our everyday lives…
5 Biological Stressors Behind Fatigue
1. Toxins, free radicals, oxidation… oh my!
You feel fatigued when your body doesn’t produce enough energy. Where, then, does energy come from, and what depletes it? Enter: mitochondria.
Mitochondria live in your cells – hundreds to thousands in every cell – and they produce energy through the process of metabolism. Think of it like this: your cell is like a beehive and the mitochondria are the thousands of worker bees. Just as bees convert pollen into honey, mitochondria convert food and oxygen into energy.
Unfortunately, these hardworking energy bees are vulnerable to damage, otherwise known as oxidative stress. What causes oxidative stress? Free radicals produced by toxins.
Every day, we face unprecedented levels of toxins:
- Food laden with gut-destroying pesticides and additives (3)
- Fish contaminated with high levels of neurotoxic mercury (4)
- Plastics made with estrogen-mimicking, hormonally disruptive chemicals (5)
- Air polluted with sleep-disrupting exhaust fumes (6)
- Electronic devices radiating electromagnetic fields (EMF) which activate a stress response in our cells and interact with DNA (7)
This can overwhelm our detox systems leaving our energy-producing mitochondria under siege by free radicals.
2. A typical diet and poor gut health
Our gut, and the millions of microorganisms it houses (our “microbiome”), is the foundation of a healthy body and mind. Treating fatigue without addressing gut health would be like building a house on quicksand.
This biological “quicksand” is chronic inflammation.
A typical western diet – high in sugar, processed carbs, and factory meats – wipes out our microbiome and irritates our gut lining. Over time, this impairs our ability to properly digest food.
Adding insult to injury, an eroded gut lining (“leaky gut”) allows bacteria to “leak” through your gut wall into your bloodstream. (8) The immune system then attacks these foreign invaders, causing chronic inflammation.
3. Your lifestyle: sleep, stress, movement, and connection
How well you sleep, exercise, respond to stress, and even the quality of your relationships all contribute to your energy or lack thereof.
Sleep is a crucial time for healing, detoxification, and energy restoration. (10) Poor sleep can lead to hormonal imbalances that affect your mood and energy.
According to the World Health Organization, 60 to 85% of people lead sedentary lifestyles. This physical inactivity has serious health implications and can double the risk of diseases often associated with fatigue, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression. (11)
Emotional stress and its associated high cortisol levels can lead to a condition called adrenal fatigue. Your adrenals, responsible for producing a variety of hormones that regulate the “fight or flight” stress response, can burn out under intense or constant stress, leaving you with a myriad of symptoms, fatigue being front and center.
With technology and social media, we are more connected than ever, yet we have become increasingly more socially and emotionally isolated. Loneliness is a risk factor for fatigue and depression. (12)
4. Genetic Predispositions
Some genetic markers or conditions may make you more fatigue-prone.
One of these is an MTHFR gene mutation. MTHFR, both a gene and enzyme, are key to your body’s ability to utilize folate (an energy-producing B vitamin). MTHFR is also essential to a biochemical process called methylation, a key player in many bodily functions, including detoxification, energy production, regulating inflammation, and mood balancing.
Low levels of MTHFR can hinder these important processes and contribute to fatigue. (13)
5. Underlying Medical Conditions
Fatigue is usually a “comorbidity”, meaning it occurs along with, or as a symptom of, another condition. Some common conditions include:
- Autoimmune illnesses like multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis
- Bacterial or viral infections like influenza, Epstein-Barr virus, and Lyme disease
- Low blood pressure
- Adrenal fatigue
- Thyroid conditions
- Celiac disease
How is Fatigue Affecting my Health?
Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion is like carrying around a hundred-pound knapsack every day.
It impairs our ability to function in our daily lives: going to work, performing household tasks, engaging in social activities, even performing basic self-care activities like bathing or dressing.
It disrupts our thought processes and causes “brain fog,” leading to forgetfulness, irritability, inability to make decisions or concentrate on daily tasks, poor coping skills, and lack of motivation. (14)
Living like this for weeks, or months, at a time takes a heavy toll emotionally. It isn’t surprising that people who suffer from chronic fatigue are more likely to develop depression.
How Can I Fix Fatigue?
1. Improve Your Diet
Remember that thing about oxidation?
Well, luckily there are many foods that contain – you guessed it – antioxidants, which combat free radicals and decrease oxidative stress. You can increase your antioxidant intake by eating plenty of dark leafy greens and brightly colored fruits and vegetables.
Avoid inflammatory foods like processed and factory-farmed meats, sugar, white flour, and hydrogenated oils (soybean, sunflower, and canola). Opt instead for clean protein like wild-caught fish, beans, and lentils, and pasture raised poultry and eggs.
Include healthy fats too, especially Omega-3 fatty acids which are particularly beneficial for improving mitochondrial health. (15) Good sources of Omega 3s include wild salmon, walnuts, flax seeds, and olive oil.
And, of course, drink plenty of water to support your detox systems and avoid sleep disruptors like alcohol and caffeine.
2. Improve Your Gut Health
The whole foods diet mentioned above is a powerful kick start to better gut health. Here are more gut health boosters:
Colorful plants, high in fiber and polyphenol antioxidants, nourish the gut microbes. Other foods rich in prebiotic fiber are chicory root, garlic, black tea, dandelion greens, and jicama root.
Great sources include fermented foods like sauerkraut, fermented pickles, kimchi, kvass, miso, and tempeh. Avoid probiotic dairy products when working on gut health, as dairy can cause inflammation in many people
Whenever possible, buy organic to avoid microbe-destroying pesticides and antibiotics (often given to factory farmed animals).
3. Get More Sleep
Sleep is essential for energy restoration. Aim for seven to nine hours and develop a bedtime routine to improve your sleep quality so you can wake up rested.
We know that’s easier said than done, so we have practical tips for you in this article, plus some suggestions below:
4. Practice mind-body exercise
You might not feel like exercising when you’re drained, but certain forms of restorative exercise can actually fight fatigue. Examples include Qigong, Tai Chi, and Yin Yoga, a style of yoga that involves holding passive positions for long periods.
Qi Gong, an Eastern mind-body-spirit practice that involves movement, breathwork, and meditation, was shown to reduce fatigue symptoms and also have antidepressive effects for people suffering from chronic fatigue. (18)
Meditation can similarly fight fatigue by promoting stress reduction, less anxiety, and better sleep. (19) Twenty minutes of mindful meditation per day can actually alter the physical structure and function of the brain, affecting how we perceive stress. (20)
What links these practices together is breathing—real, deep, and rejuvenating breathing. This type of breathing positively impacts your nervous system and, therefore, helps fight fatigue. For simple steps on how to begin practicing healing breathing, check out our Medicinal Breathwork blog.
5. Use Herbs
Medicinal plants such as teas, adaptogenic herbs, and certain mushrooms have powerful anti-fatigue properties.
Tea is high in antioxidants, specifically flavonoid polyphenols, which counteract oxidative stress and nourish your microbiome. A typical cup of tea contains 200 mg of flavonoids. (21) One study showed that herbal tea, consumed twice a day for one month, reduced fatigue and improved health. (22)
Adaptogenic herbs have been used in traditional medicine for centuries for their innate ability to help the body cope with stress and, thus, reduce fatigue associated with that stress. Some of the best adaptogens for stress include ginseng, holy basil, Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, and licorice root.
Medicinal mushrooms are some of the most powerful “superfoods” around. Two particularly healing mushrooms, reishi and chaga, are actually considered adaptogens. They have a profound regulating effect on the immune system, hormones, blood sugar, allergies, and inflammation – all associated with fatigue.
6. Manage Stress
The emotional kind.
We cannot always avoid stressful circumstances, but we can control how we respond to and manage stress. In addition to the diet and lifestyle tips above, here are a few other stress-reducing ideas:
- Schedule relaxation breaks (5-15 minutes) throughout your day. Commit to one or more activities that make you feel calm and centered like meditation, journaling, prayer, listening to music, a walk in nature, etc.
- Learn to say “no.” Prioritizing your health, and rest is a must, which means you can’t be everywhere and everything to everyone.
- Get the right medical support. Work with a naturopathic or functional medicine practitioner to uncover and address underlying conditions or imbalances which may be causing fatigue. A trained mental health professional is also an invaluable stress-management resource.
Fatigue may be hard to measure, but with an estimated 836,000 to 2.5 million Americans suffering from CFS alone, its prevalence is indisputable. (23) If you are struggling with persistent, depleted energy, rest assured, you are not alone and you do not have to feel this way forever.
By addressing the energy-stealing stressors, both emotional and biological, that are taxing your systems, you can fight off fatigue and take back your vitality.