You’ve conquered plow pose, you take stairs instead of elevators, and you keep up with your active toddler for hours. Sure you’re tired … but does it go deeper than simply feeling tuckered out at night? Constant fatigue that seemingly arises out of nowhere and persists for several weeks or months probably means your body needs extra help from the foods you eat and the daily choices you make.
“When I teach someone to bring good nutrients into their body, my job isn’t yet done,” says Ashley Koff, RD, author of Mom Energy (Hay House, 2011). “I also have to teach that the body needs to be able to break down those nutrients and get them where they need to go.” Numerous factors affect nutrient assimilation and energy levels, not the least of which is stress. According to a 2011 study by the American Psychological Association, 39 percent of Americans said their stress had increased over the past year, and 37 percent said their fatigue from stress had increased, too.
Address adrenals and thyroid
When the go-go-go lifestyle (including junk foods and poor sleep) becomes chronic, your adrenal glands—the grape-sized organs atop the kidneys—produce more of the stress hormone cortisol to help you power through. But when maxed-out adrenals can’t make enough cortisol to keep up with demand, that’s when adrenal fatigue may factor in. Although “there’s a wide gulf between mainstream and alternative practitioners regarding the existence of adrenal fatigue, the physiology of adrenal exhaustion resulting from chronic stress is well-supported,” says Robert Rountree, MD, Delicious Living’s medical editor. “I’m in the camp of doctors who believe it is a real problem, and I diagnose and treat it all the time.” Common symptoms, besides fatigue that’s not relieved by sleep, may include fuzzy thinking, dizziness, low libido, anxiety, and salty-food cravings.
The thyroid gland, closely linked to adrenal function, also influences your body’s energy and stress response by regulating metabolism, body temperature, sleep, and other functions. Hypothyroidism signs include fatigue, headaches, and sleep problems. If these symptoms mirror yours, ask your doctor to perform a cortisol saliva test to check for adrenal fatigue and to measure all three thyroid hormones: TSH, T4, and T3. Your practitioner can also rule out other more serious culprits, such as autoimmune disorders. Then reclaim your energy with these tips.
1. Eat more often
Sounds good, right? But step away from the bagels and candy bars; processed and refined foods actually sap additional energy to metabolize. Plus, sugary, caffeine-infused foods cause rapid spikes and drops in blood sugar and energy levels, potential contributors to insulin resistance and adrenal burnout.
Instead, embrace protein and fresh produce every time you eat—which should be every three hours (see “Eat This Way,” below). Quality protein sources, such as beans, fish, and nut butters, rebuild stores of depleted hormones, such as cortisol, says Jack Challem, author of No More Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2011), while fiber-rich produce keeps you feeling full, stabilizes blood sugar, and provides energy-essential nutrients such as magnesium.
Remember this simple formula: One serving of carbohydrates, protein, or fats equals one hour of energy. Combine all three every time you eat, and choose the best quality nutrients each time, in the form found closest to the way the food exists in nature—an apple instead of apple juice, for example, or even better, an apple (fi ber and carbs) with a handful of almonds (protein and fats). Most people should eat every three hours or so to keep metabolism stoked and blood sugar levels stable, says Koff.
2. Fortify your thyroid
A healthy thyroid requires sufficient amounts of iodine, selenium, and the amino acid L-tyrosine. In addition, the herbs bladderwrack (a form of algae, also called sea kelp, that is rich in iodine), gum guggul, and iris versicolor (also known as blue flag root) nourish the thyroid gland by enhancing its normal metabolic functions, according to a 2012 article in the Journal of Restorative Medicine. It’s easy to overstimulate the thyroid, however, so be sure to consult your physician before using any of these supplements. In some instances, your thyroid test results may necessitate medication. If so, ask your holistic physician about using a natural form of thyroid extract that contains a high ratio of T3 to T4; in contrast, synthetic products typically contain pure T4 or pure T3, says Rountree.
3. Address food intolerance and allergies
Optimal digestion is imperative to optimal energy because the digestive system starts the process of making nutrients usable and available to every cell, Koff says. If you’ve got a chronic digestive problem, such as celiac disease, lactose intolerance, or IBS, it could be affecting your energy. Check with your health care provider about taking probiotics, which can rebalance gut function; a minimum
dose is 1 billion CFU daily.
Allergies like hay fever also squelch energy. “When you are releasing histamine and proinflammatory molecules called cytokines as part of an allergic reaction, that has a fatigue-inducing effect,” Challem says. Quercetin (1,000–2,000 mg daily) can reduce allergy-related fatigue by blunting the inflammatory response.
4. Fuel mitochondria
Mitochondria, the energy powerhouses in each cell, convert protein, glucose, and fat into energy in a process called the Krebs cycle. B-complex vitamins, Challem says, kick-start the process by revving up the Krebs cycle. (Tweet this now!) What’s more, B5 (aka pantothenic acid) affects adrenal structure and function. But a carb-heavy diet, stress, and certain prescription medications, including birth control pills, can deplete B vitamins. Overcome those factors with a daily supplement that provides all eight Bs, including at least 50 mg each of B1, B2, and B3 and 500 mg of B5.
Studies show that coenzyme Q10 (coQ10) also supports mitochondrial function, boosts energy production, and improves stamina. Challem recommends 100–200 mg daily.
5. Mind your brain
Vitamin C supports the adrenal glands, energizes the brain, and helps the body make L-carnitine, an amino acid that enables mitochondria to convert fat to energy. But most people don’t get enough C; even in citrusy Florida, only 56 percent of people get the recommended amount. Challem suggests supplementing with 1,000–3,000 mg daily, divided into three doses.
Powering down your brain is just as important as keeping it fired up, however. Magnesium tames your stress response and enables your muscles to relax, Koff says, leading to better sleep—and ultimately more energy. Many women who take calcium supplements don’t get sufficient magnesium to counterbalance its effects, and people who shun whole grains and legumes, like those on a strict paleo-style diet, are at further risk. If you’ve got tight muscles at bedtime or restless leg syndrome, you may be magnesium-deficient, Challem says. Improve intake with nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens, and cacao, or with 400 mg magnesium citrate daily, divided into two doses.
A class of herbs known as adaptogens helps your body respond to stress. Three in particular, ashwagandha, Siberian ginseng, and rhodiola, encourage healthy adrenal-hormone levels. Licorice root, another adaptogenic herb, “prevents the body’s breakdown of cortisol, which you want when you’re in adrenal exhaustion,” Challem says. He recommends 200–300 mg daily each of rhodiola and ginseng and 500 mg ashwagandha. Look for licorice root that’s not deglycyrrhizinated (DGL). DGL is great for gastric disturbances, but for adrenal fatigue, glycyrrhetinic acid is the active compound. Follow package directions for dose.
Make sure you schedule downtime, too. Meditate, journal, walk around the block—whatever helps you tamp down the stress and reduce your cortisol demand.
7. Move and groove
Does the thought of exercising make you feel more fatigued? If so, start with slow, gentle activity, such as walking just 15 minutes a day. Then choose something you love, like dance, martial arts, or hiking, and try to do it four times a week, says Laurie Steelsmith, ND, a Honolulu-based naturopathic physician. Before long, you’ll find that exercise actually gives you more stamina. Not only does it build muscle and burn fat, but it also enables muscle cells to produce more mitochondria, which in turn make more energy. Plus, it shifts stuck energy associated with difficult emotions, says Steelsmith. Exercise can (and should!) include sex, she adds. “Getting your sex life up and running is essential for your vital energy flow.”