Fatigue and Energy


Fatigue makes everything we do seem more difficult and can rob us of enjoyment, enthusiasm and our quality of life. 

What is fatigue?

Fatigue describes the physical and/or mental state of being tired. It is not uncommon to experience both together. Many people are aware that when you are fatigued you struggle to function properly. In the same way, if your cells lack energy, they are not able to perform their functions properly. The contraction of your heart muscles to pump blood, the movement of food through your digestive system and the ability of your immune system to fight off infections, are just some of the examples of everyday essential processes within your body that depend on sufficient cellular energy production. For this reason, fatigue can contribute to many common symptoms including mood disturbances, brain fog, muscle aches and pains, as well as reducing your stamina and endurance. However, while fatigue can contribute to the above symptoms, it may also occur as a consequence, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle. 

What am I so tired?

Fatigue can be caused by many factors, which can range from nutritional deficiencies and poor-quality sleep, through to deeper issues associated with chronic stress, or impairments within your cellular ‘powerhouses’ known as mitochondria. These are responsible for producing energy within your cells in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

Underlying causes of fatigue

  • Stress: Stress is a daily reality for most of us. Deadlines for work, family and social responsibilities can leave us feeling constantly wired. Our body responds to these ongoing demands by releasing stress chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol, which are responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ stress response. For some people, ongoing stress can eventually disrupt their normal stress response.
  •  Poor sleep: The importance of consistent, good quality sleep cannot be overstated. Getting less than the recommended 7-8 hours per night is associated with reduced concentration, memory and work performance, as well as contributing to mood disturbances.
  •  Dehydration: This is an extremely common, but often overlooked cause of fatigue. Dehydration impairs your body’s ability to regulate its temperature and deliver nutrients and oxygen to your cells. Even mild dehydration can impair your mental and physical performance.
  •  Blood sugar  disturbances: Your body requires the hormone insulin, to transport glucose from your blood into your cells, where it is used to create energy. Under certain conditions (eg. infrequent meals or eating a diet high in sugary, refined foods), your cells can become resistant to insulin, and glucose cannot enter your cells efficiently. A key sign of this is a noticeable slump in energy that hits in the mid-afternoon.
  •  Hormonal imbalances: Thyroid hormone, testosterone and adrenal hormones can all influence energy production. Imbalances within the production of these hormones can manifest in different ways. For example, low thyroid hormone can cause weight gain, hair loss, menstrual irregularity and low energy, whilst hormonal changes, which occur with ageing (ie. Menopause and andropause) are associated with fatigue.
  •  Immune dysfunction: Poor immune function increases your risk of infections and is directly linked with fatigue. Allergy, another type of immune dysfunction, involves inappropriate activation of the immune system. Your body attempts to control infections and allergy through the process of inflammation, which over prolonged periods, can negatively affect cellular energy production.
  •  Mood disturbances: Our state of health directly influences our mental wellbeing and feeling fatigued can cause us to feel more sensitive, irritated or unmotivated. Conversely, these feelings can influence how energetic we feel when it comes to facing daily challenges, which contributes to our experience of mental and physical fatigue.
  •  Oxidative stress: Mitochondria are our ‘power generators’. Found within each cell, they are responsible for creating energy from the nutrients we consume through our diet. However, poor diet and lifestyle habits can create free radicals, which can damage the structure of mitochondria and limit their ability to produce energy.
  •  Inflammation: Inflammation can be caused by poor diet, being overweight, infections, allergies and exposure to environmental toxins (eg. pesticides). Left unmanaged, prolonged bouts of inflammation can cause changes in mood and/or physical function, negatively influencing energy levels and overall wellbeing. Sometimes inflammation can be selfperpetuating, and lead to a multi-system, multi-symptom state of poor health, resulting in very severe fatigue.
  •  Toxic burden: Whether from personal care, cleaning products, pesticides or heavy metals, exposure to toxins is ubiquitous in industrialised societies. Microbe imbalances in our gut can arise from toxin exposure. This can cause an increase in inflammation and oxidative stress. 

Healthy eating to fight fatigue

The food you consume fuels your body, therefore providing your body with premium fuel allows it to function at its best. An optimal diet provides the right amount of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats), as well as vitamins and minerals to promote optimal energy levels, while limiting foods that may interfere with energy production. A healthy diet can also reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, giving you the best chance of achieving good physical and mental health.

Our experienced Adelaide naturopath can customise a plan to suit your needs and specific dietary requirements. Include the following foods:

1) Protein

Consuming high-quality protein at each meal helps regulate blood glucose levels, providing you with a steady source of energy throughout the day. Protein can be obtained from both animal sources and vegetable sources, such as seafood, eggs, meat, chicken and beans and legumes.

2) Essential Fatty Acids (good fats)

Omega-3 fatty acids are an important structural and functional component of every cell and are therefore essential for optimal energy production. Sources of omega-3 fats include oily fish (eg. sardines, anchovies, mackerel), as well as flaxseeds and walnuts.

3) Magnesium

Magnesium is an essential mineral that is used in over 300 biochemical processes within your body and is essential to turn protein, fats and carbohydrates into energy. Sources of magnesium include Brazil nuts, cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, tahini, barley, dried figs, wheat bran, oats and green leafy vegetables.

4) B Vitamins

B vitamins are a group of nutrients that act together to support energy production, healthy nervous system function and optimal brain function. Eat from a variety of the following to increase your B vitamin intake: chicken, lamb, beef, wheat germ, nutritional yeast, rice bran, almonds, pecans, green leafy vegetables, bananas, seafood and eggs.

5) Iron

An essential component of red blood cells, iron helps transport oxygen around the body to your cells. Without sufficient iron due to low intake, poor absorption or iron losses due to menstruation and blood loss, your cells may not get enough oxygen for energy production. Iron from animal sources (such as beef, chicken and kangaroo) is absorbed more efficiently than that from plant sources (legumes, nuts, seeds, spinach). Adding foods rich in vitamin C can improve the absorption of iron from plant sources. 

6) Phytochemicals

Found in colourful fruits and vegetables, phytochemicals (such as polyphenols and bioflavonoids), help protect against oxidative stress, therefore can protect mitochondria from structural damage. Eat a rainbow of fruit and vegetables every day, such as beetroot, carrot, berries, oranges and kiwifruit, to ensure you are consuming sufficient phytochemicals for health. 

Foods to avoid

Equally as important as the foods to include in your diet are the foods to limit or avoid. These are usually foods that can lead to energy fluctuations or promote free radical damage. These include:

  • Highly processed foods with artificial colours, flavours and preservatives
  • Hydrogenated or ‘trans fats’
  •  Foods that are high in refined sugars
  •  Excessive caffeine or alcohol. 

Tips to make food preparation and cooking easier

The foods you choose to fuel yourself with are one of the most impactful things you can do to improve your energy levels. Here are some tips to get started:

o Make a meal plan for the week and buy all of your ingredients on one dedicated shopping day. This gives you more time to prepare meals at home.

o If you buy large packs of meat, freeze it into cooking portions. This makes it easier to defrost and gives you ready-made portions to cook.

o Slow cookers are your best friend in the kitchen. Add vegetables, stock and your favourite meats or legumes and you can create meals for days.

o Simplify recipes. You don’t have to cook restaurant-style meals every night, nor do you have to create new meals every week. Repeat tasty dishes each week, to make life easy.

o Only cook complex recipes if you enjoy cooking, otherwise choose meals that are less than 30 minutes from start to finish.

o Cook meals that only require minimal ingredients and fewer dishes to clean afterwards (eg. one pan/pot meals).

o When cooking, make a double batch so it can be used for other meals or lunches the next day. Pack lunch and freezer portions after you finish eating dinner. 

Exercising for energy

Engaging in regular physical activity is important for maintaining healthy cellular energy production and boosting your vitality. Start with gentle exercises such as walking, Tai Chi, or yoga; working within your own capacity until your energy levels improve. Allow yourself time to build your energy levels before embarking on a more vigorous exercise program. Morning exercise is often preferable as you will be more likely to have the required energy after you have rested. It may also be of benefit to boost your energy and mood for the day ahead. When energy levels have increased significantly, you may wish to incorporate some form of resistance exercise or high intensity interval training (HIIT). These forms of training have been shown to be of great benefit in helping to maintain healthy body composition and improve cellular energy production. 

Lifestyle tips for maximising your energy

  •  Find your purpose and motivation: Energy levels can be subjective, affected by your outlook and enthusiasm for life (or lack thereof), as even the simplest tasks can require effort when you’re feeling down. Take time to review what is truly important to you and think about what it is that will keep you motivated. Write your goals in a journal and review them regularly to make sure they are still relevant and motivating to you.
  •  Throw in some fun: Punctuating your daily life with enjoyable events to look forward to can help ease mental fatigue caused by the pressure of ongoing responsibilities. Schedule in regular time for hobbies, socialising or entertainment to help break up daily routine.
  •  Get into nature: Spending time in nature can simply mean taking time to water your plants, gardening or taking a walk in a green environment before or after work, or on your lunch break. Choose an activity in nature, to do every day to help reinvigorate you.
  •  Practice breathing deeply: Deep breathing exercises have been shown to be very beneficial in helping control stress and boost energy levels. Just two to five minutes daily, three or four times per week can still offer great benefits, although a daily practice will optimise your health in every way.
  •  Stay hydrated: Even a small loss of body water can impair your mental and physical performance and cause you to feel fatigued. Aim to consume a minimum of six to eight glasses of water every day. If you are doing a lot of physical activity, or working in hot conditions, this may need to be increased.
  •  Avoid stimulants: It can be tempting to turn to quick ‘pick me ups’ such as coffee, energy drinks or chocolate to boost your energy levels. While these may help you feel better in the short-term, they are often followed by a crash and over time can contribute to your ongoing fatigue.
  •  Slow and steady wins the race: Depending on the cause and duration of your fatigue, it may take a while to restore your energy levels. However, many people begin to feel an increase in energy shortly after treatment. Although this is a positive sign, it can lead people to think they have recovered, at which point they begin to exert themselves more, resulting in more fatigue. As tempting as it may be to use your new found energy to be more productive, it is important to pace yourself and to allow your energy production systems to fully recover, before increasing your output.