We’ve all experienced acute fatigue at one time or another - that heavy, walking-through-concrete feeling of excessive tiredness, not having enough energy to get through the day, and mental fogginess. The basic guidelines for anyone experiencing fatigue begin with getting more sleep, eating well, working less, and trying to reduce stress in our lives. Changing our habits to find a better balance between work, play, and rest, as well as a dietary, emotional, and psychological tune-up will often greatly improve our energy level.
Cause of Chronic Fatigue
Chronic fatigue syndrome, on the other hand, is a much less common and harder-to-correct condition. Many factors contribute to chronic fatigue, including allergies, anemia, cancer, nutrient depletion, chronic pain, chronic constipation, depression, environmental toxins, hypoglycemia, immune suppression, lack of sleep, low hydrochloric acid, obesity, poor digestion, progressive disease, sluggish liver, stress and overwork, and structural misalignment.
Though this list includes a wide range of factors, it’s a good starting point in identifying some potential underlying issues associated with this condition. Here are some of the more specific causes of chronic fatigue. Chronic candida, mold infections, and allergies. Acute viral infections, such as cold, flus, and hepatitis, chronic viral infections, including HIV, Herpes, and Epstein-Barr. Parasite infections, bacterial infections, such as staphylococcus or streptococcus. Hormonal deficiencies, including hypothyroidism, low adrenal function (often due to chronic stress, sugar addiction, and caffeine abuse), pituitary dysfunction, and menopause. Nutritional deficiencies: magnesium, potassium, iodine, iron, copper, calcium, vitamin B12 and other B vitamins, folic acid, as well as vitamins C, D, and E are the most common. Excessive toxic minerals, such as lead, aluminum, mercury, nickel, and cadmium. Metabolic disease, such as of the heart, liver, or kidneys. Substance abuse: coffee, alcohol, sugar, food, marijuana, and other drugs. Environmental contamination, such as fluorescent lights and chemical sensitivities. Psychological problems, including depression, anxiety, and adjustment/life transition difficulties (significant life changes can be exhausting!)
One of the most important components of treating chronic fatigue with nutritional changes is first identifying the underlying cause of the condition. Though the following therapeutic approach is multi-faceted, ingesting more or less of a specific type of food, vitamin, mineral, or herb may be required depending on the cause.
A helpful and healing diet for people with chronic fatigue is typically high in easily digested complex carbohydrates, an abundance of fibrous fruits and vegetables, adequate amounts of protein, and plenty of good quality, filtered water. A diet full of fat, sugar, and highly-processed foods are energy depleting and significantly contribute to long-term problems with fatigue.
A whole-food multivitamin is also a general recommendation, especially during times when our diet is less than perfect. Consider a multivitamin as a form of insurance, though - not a replacement for a healthy diet. Increased amounts of all the B vitamins are also helpful, particularly for combating stress.
Minerals are just as important, and, in certain people, they may be even more important than the B vitamins. All of the macrominerals and trace minerals are generally needed in amounts greater than the Recommended Daily Intake (RDA), especially if our digestion is slow or deficient. When we have poor digestion, this is a good indication that our assimilation of nutrients is poor.
- Magnesium and potassium deficiency is a common cause of low energy, as they support proper cell respiration and energy production. Supplementing with 500-800 mg of magnesium and 2-3 grams of potassium a day may help to correct the deficiencies and restore energy levels. Some excellent food sources of these minerals include sea vegetables, especially kelp, whole grains, particularly amaranth, beans and legumes, seeds, and chlorophyll-rich foods, such as leafy greens.
- Iron is essential to build red blood cells to carry oxygen and for ATP production. Increasing iron-containing foods, such as apricots, beans, beets, dates, sea vegetables, millet, prunes, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, spinach, and sunflower seeds, will correct iron-deficiency anemia without taking constipating iron supplements.
- Iodine is needed for normal thyroid function, which supports proper metabolism and energy production. Sea vegetables and unrefined sea salt are notable sources of this important mineral.
- Copper is also necessary for blood building and for energy-producing enzymes. Sea vegetables (clearly an overachiever when it comes to minerals!), whole grains, beans and legumes, raisins, apricots, beets, garlic, nuts, mushrooms, leafy greens, and unrefined sea salt are all excellent food sources of copper.
- Zinc and manganese are also essential components of many enzymes, which are also involved in protein synthesis and ATP transfer - both important in muscle function and nerve conduction. Sea vegetables, whole grains, legumes and beans, nuts, and seeds are going to provide adequate amounts of zinc. Manganese can be found in blueberries, green tea, and avocadoes.
- Chromium may help in some cases of fatigue related to blood sugar abnormalities. Seaweed, whole grains, mushrooms, beets, nutritional yeast, beans and legumes, as well as unrefined sea salt are good sources of this mineral.
A number of herbs can also be used to fight fatigue. Considering that they have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda dating back thousands of years, their benefits have obviously stood the test of time. With any herb, the recommended usage involves moderate amounts on a daily basis over long periods. No sledgehammer effect here. Persistence and patience are necessary to see long-term results.
- Ginseng is helpful in relieving physical fatigue and is the most commonly used tonifying herb in the world, and its anti-fatigue and anti-stress effects have been substantiated by research. Drinking ginseng tea or taking 1-2 capsules twice a day, in the morning and at noon, are excellent options to raise energy levels.
- Gotu kola provides more of a mental stimulation compared to the physical effect of ginseng. Please do not confuse the word stimulation with the caffeine jitters we associate with espressos and energy drinks. Gotu kola subtly improves mental clarity and memory over time.
- Cayenne pepper is one of the true natural stimulants, and it works rather quickly. Incorporating more cayenne pepper in the diet can provide additional warmth to the body, have a mild diuretic effect, and promote energy.
- Peppermint leaf tea also provides a more instantaneous pick-me-up and is helpful for digestion.
- Ginger root stimulates digestion and circulation, is a warming herb, and may help with headaches, nausea, or low energy.
- Licorice root is a balancer and has been used in many formulas for improving energy levels through enhanced body function. Its sweet flavor makes it a tasty pairing with other herbs in teas.
- Turmeric is a warming herb that supports circulation, the spleen, and the liver. It strengthens the nervous system, immune system, and regulates blood sugar. It is also a well-known digestive aid and assists in breaking down complex carbohydrates, which are an essential component of a fatigue-fighting diet.
A combination of these various herbs can be used as powders in teas or in an encapsulated formula to support the treatment of fatigue. They can also help fight stress, decreased circulation, hypoglycemia, and weak adrenal function. Try turmeric, ginger, and cayenne pepper in my Immune-boosting Tea. It’s an energizing way to start the day!
Putting It All Together
Remember: With chronic fatigue syndrome, or any serious problem of fatigue, an evaluation to discover the cause is essential before tailoring a nutritional therapy approach that addresses the underlying issues. This can be done with the help of your physician, holistic health care provider, or nutrition professional. Treatment is multi-faceted, and often includes the following:
- Treating chronic infections
- Natural hormone support, including thyroid, adrenal, and sex hormones
- Nutritional therapies with food, vitamins, minerals, and herbs
- Avoidance of sugar, processed foods, alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs
- Avoiding common allergenic foods, such as dairy, wheat, and soy
- Treating chronic candida and parasitic infections
Here’s to your health, vibrance, and energy! May your days be filled with more vegetables, less exhaustion, and more life.
Haas, E.M. (2006). Staying healthy with nutrition: The complete guide to diet and nutritional medicine. New York: Random House, Inc.
Wood, R. (2010). The new whole foods encyclopedia. New York, NY: Penguin Books, Inc.