When energy levels run low, we generally feel lousy and our quality of life often suffers. Although there are some cases due to illness where low energy cannot be improved, most of the time it can be helped once the cause is determined. For example, it is not uncommon for unhealthy food choices, obesity, or poor sleeping habits to be the cause of frequent fatigue or low energy.
Rule Out Illness and Hormonal Imbalances
When someone is ill they usually complain of fatigue and low energy, so it is wise to see a health care professional when extreme feelings of tiredness cannot be easily explained. Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome are complex conditions that leave people feeling exhausted most of the time. Many have a difficult time obtaining a proper diagnosis and treatment, so you may have to shop around for a knowledgeable practitioner that can help. In addition to other illnesses, hormonal imbalances can cause fatigue and can sometimes be difficult to diagnose.
Fatigue is a common symptom of hypothyroidism which occurs when the thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones. The thyroid gland sits at the base of your neck and is responsible for regulating metabolism. In addition to fatigue, other symptoms of hypothyroidism include weight gain, sensitivity to cold and muscle weakness. Women are at a higher risk than men for developing this condition and the risk increases with age. Your physician can order a blood test to determine if hypothyroidism is the cause of fatigue. Make sure your healthcare professional is using the most recent lab standards. In 2002 the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists narrowed the TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) reference range to .3-3.0. If your last test was “normal” and measured between 3.1 to 5.0, you would now be considered to be in the hypothyroid range.
Take care of your adrenals. Many people are going through life with “burned out” adrenals thanks to chronic, long term stress. They are no longer able to produce enough hormone to keep up with the demands of daily life. People can be in various stages of adrenal imbalance, so it is important to work with someone who has experience in this area for proper diagnosis and treatment. For more information you can read, Feeling Fat, Fuzzy, or Frazzled? By Richard Shames, MD and Karilee Shames, PhD, RN. In it they discuss the importance of balancing thyroid, adrenal, and sex hormones for optimal well-being.
A common cause of low energy is poor eating habits. If we don’t provide our body with the fuel it needs at the right time, it won’t run properly. Skipping meals and relying on sugary snacks and caffeine to get you through the day gives you a false sense of energy. Eventually you will “crash” once your blood sugar comes back down and the caffeine wears off.
You can prevent the crash by eating 3 small meals with 2-3 snacks a day. Eating every 3-4 hours helps regulate blood sugar levels and is better for maintaining energy. Each meal and snack should include some protein, complex carbohydrates, and a little healthy fat. Many people don’t eat enough protein at breakfast, instead relying on refined carbs to get them through the morning—which won’t. An egg on whole grain toast, ground nuts mixed in yogurt or high fiber cereal, or a smoothie boosted with extra whey protein, these will get you past 10 a.m. better than any bagel or bowl of low fiber, low protein flakey corn cereal. An example of an energy-boosting mid afternoon snack is a handful of almonds and a piece of fruit. The almonds provide protein and healthy fat while the fruit provides fiber-rich carbohydrates. Some other ideas include a hard-boiled egg, hummus and baby carrots, a protein bar, or fruit and cheese.
Being deficient in certain vitamins and minerals can lead to fatigue. Two very common deficiencies include vitamin B12 and iron which can lead to different types of anemia. Vitamin B12 is found only in foods from animal sources such as meat, eggs, and dairy. Vegans who follow a strict-animal free diet are at risk and must make sure they get their B12 from fortified foods or supplements.
Hydrochloric acid in the stomach releases B12 from protein, so those with low stomach acid are at risk for B12 deficiency. As we age we naturally produce less stomach acid, but millions of younger Americans are on acid blocking medications for heartburn. If you have been on long term antacid therapy, you may want to have your vitamin B12 levels checked. Dietary supplements are available, but B12 shots may be necessary in certain cases that don’t respond to supplementation.
Iron deficiency anemia leads to a reduced production of hemoglobin- a substance that carries oxygen to your body’s cells via your blood. This leaves people often feeling tired, weak and sometimes pale. Causes include inadequate dietary intake, internal bleeding, or the inability to absorb it due to a disease like celiac disease or crohn’s.
Dehydration can make you feel tired so drink plenty of water. Limit regular sodas and juices as they can spike blood sugar levels and cause you to later crash. Try not to drink more than one to two caffeinated beverages a day.
D-Ribose is a “sugar” but it is different than common dietary sugars, such as glucose or fructose and will not raise blood sugar levels. It is an integral part of the biochemical pathway that leads to ATP production. ATP is the energy currency used by the body’s cells. When the body is slow to produce ATP due to certain conditions, supplementing with D-ribose can help meet ATP energy needs. A study published in the Nov 2006 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found supplementing with 5 grams D-Ribose 3 times/day (Corvalen®) for about 1 month lead to significant improvements in energy, sleep, pain, and well being. The patients felt an average increase in energy of 45%.
Uncover Hidden Allergies and Sensitivities
Hidden food or environmental allergies can be a cause of fatigue. Common dietary offenders include wheat and dairy. Molds, dust mites and household chemicals are common environmental allergens. A physician can order special antibody tests that measure your immune response to these potential allergens. Eliminating the offending foods from the diet and avoiding contact with environmental allergens may help restore energy levels.
Exercise is a great way to boost both physical and mental energy levels. If your desk job leaves you feeling sluggish an hour after lunch, take a few minutes to walk the halls or stretch at your desk. For long term energy improvement, regular exercise is key. Not only will your energy go up, but weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides will likely go down to further improve your health.
Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, MD has written the book From Fatigued to Fantastic! It is a great resource for anyone feeling fatigue and discusses in detail many of these issues.
Excess stress can take a toll on your body, interrupt sleep and zap energy. Although we can’t avoid stress in our life, it is important to learn how to handle it. Find what works for you. Some popular stress-reducing methods include meditation, exercise, yoga, painting, walking outside, laughing with a friend and aromatherapy. Try one or include a few into your daily routine to help you manage stress.
By Megan Witt, RD LD