Loss of energy is a common sign of aging and disease. Muscles weaken and atrophy. The heart loses its ability to efficiently pump blood. Memory falters, and organ systems go on the blink. You feel tired and sluggish, both physically and mentally …. What’s happening is that your mitochondria, the powerhouses located in each of your cells, are unable to keep up with your body’s energy demands.
~Julian Whitaker, MD, 3 Ways to Tune Up Your Mitochondria and Enhance Energy, www.drwhitaker.com (Feb 2014)
Do you wonder why you often feel exhausted? There are many potential, sometimes complex, overlapping causes of this common problem, which may indicate a serious chronic underlying health condition. Exploring and applying even a few of the ideas discussed here may just launch you into a whole new world of wellness!
Common Causes of Fatigue & Some Natural Solutions
The body’s cells contain powerhouses (mitochondria) that make ATP, the energy molecule. Physical, mental, or emotional stressors can impact ATP production, which in turn can cause fatigue.
The adrenal glands, two walnut-sized organs above the kidneys, are involved in producing over 50 hormones that drive almost every bodily function. Specifically, they balance these energy-related hormones: glucocorticoids (especially cortisol); mineralocorticoids (especially aldosterone); sex hormones; and epinephrine/adrenaline.
When the brain registers a threatening stressor, the adrenal medulla releases adrenaline hormones to help the body react (the fight-or-flight response), rushing blood to the brain, heart and muscles. The adrenal cortex then releases corticosteroids to dampen bodily functions not required for immediate survival. Adrenal fatigue can result from single major stressors or prolonged stress, exposure to environmental toxins, inadequate sleep, and unhealthy lifestyle choices. The wide range of symptoms often includes fatigue and sluggish thyroid function. Supplements that support adrenal function include:
- Adrenal glandular extract [contains adrenal gland hormones (e.g., hydrocortisone)]
- Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) (generates adrenaline)
- Cordyceps sinensis (traditional Chinese medicinal mushroom; increases ATP and insulin sensitivity)
- L-Tyrosine (precursor of several adrenal stress hormones and neurotransmitters, including L-dopa, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine; especially effective when anxiety accompanies stress)
- Rhodiola rosea (standardized) (adaptogenic herb that improves activity of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine; prevents depletion of adrenal hormones).
Blood Sugar Imbalance
Glucose, a sugar in the blood derived from consumed carbohydrates, is the main source of energy for the body and brain. The body converts one glucose molecule into approximately 31 ATP molecules. Either high (pre/diabetes) or low (hypoglycemia) blood sugar can thus cause extreme fatigue, but proper diet, exercise, and certain dietary supplements can help manage both.
The islets of Langerhans in the pancreas secrete the hormone insulin, which lowers blood glucose levels. Type II diabetes is marked by elevated blood glucose resulting from either the inadequate production of insulin or the cells’ inability to use insulin (insulin resistance). The American Diabetes Association provides these fasting blood glucose guidelines: (1) normal < 100 mg/dl; (2) pre-diabetics = 100-125 mg/dl; and (3) diabetics > 126 mg/dl.
Hypoglycemia can occur in diabetics who improperly combine medicine, food, and/or exercise. It can less commonly occur in non-diabetics when there is too much insulin in the blood. Causes of hypoglycemia include prescription drugs, excess alcohol consumption, liver, heart or kidney disease, and hormone and enzyme deficiencies.
Necessary dietary considerations are discussed below. Reducing excess body fat, especially waist circumference, should be a primary goal (targets: men < 37”; women < 34.5”). Supplements that lower high blood sugar include berberine (from goldenseal), cinnamon, mulberry leaf extract, chromium polynicotinate (combats insulin resistance; facilitates uptake of glucose in the cells and weight loss), gymnema sylvestre (stimulates insulin production), magnesium ( commonly deficient in diabetics; increases the number and sensitivity of insulin receptors), vanadyl sulfate (mimicks insulin), and milk thistle (ideally standardized for 80% silymarin; lowers/stabilizes blood glucose levels and protects the liver, the most important tissue involved in insulin utilization).
Hypoglycemics should eat nutrient dense foods, especially protein, roughly every two hours. They can also benefit from chromium polynicotinate, a multivitamin high in B-complex; balanced omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids; and fiber.
Candidiasis (Yeast Overgrowth)
Chronic fatigue is a classic symptom of systemic candidiasis [Candida-related complex (CRC)], an overgrowth of the parasitic, yeast-like fungus Candida albicans, which is normally present in the body.
CRC treatment involves:
- Starving the overgrown yeast with a Candida diet
- Replacing the good bacteria that the yeast has destroyed or crowded out
- Killing the overgrown yeast with nutritional supplements
- Supporting the adrenal and thyroid glands and immune system.
Effective supplements include:
- Yeast fighters (grapefruit seed extract, caprylic acid, aloe juice/gel, garlic, pau d’arco, oregano extract; black walnut)
- Digestive tract supporters (probiotics, S. boulardii, L-glutamine, EFAs)
- Immunity enhancers (thymus extract, astragalus, whey/other protein)
- Adrenal and liver glandulars/supporters
Diet Toxicity & Draining Lifestyle Choices
A person ultimately becomes what he eats. A diet high in toxic sugar/artificial sweeteners, high-glycemic carbohydrates, sodium, caffeine, processed/fast foods, alcohol, and/or bad fats, eventually will cause the body’s cell, tissue, and organ functions to slow or break down, and may cause underlying excessive weight gain/obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other often avoidable degenerative diseases. Food sensitivities/ allergies can also cause fatigue. The most common allergens include pro-inflammatory gluten and dairy, dyes and preservatives, nuts, fish and shellfish, soy, egg, and corn.
Consuming these foods (organic whenever possible) is generally likely to boost overall health and energy: fish high in omega-3 fatty acids; chicken/turkey; cruciferous and other non-starchy vegetables (including green super foods); berries; fiber; beans; olives/olive oil; avocadoes; nuts and seeds; high-alkaline water; kelp/seaweed (in moderation); Celtic/Himalayan sea salt (rich in minerals). Raw foods provide higher levels of nutrients than when cooked.
Poor lifestyle choices also lower energy levels. A healthy lifestyle includes healthy relationships, adequate sleep and recreation, satisfying work, and stress management. Given the positive relationship between spiritual/religious practice and health outcomes, those who incorporate some type of spirituality (prayer, meditation) into their lives tend to feel less fatigued when major life stressors strike.
While female and male bodies produce the same hormones, chronic fatigue generally warrants medical testing for levels of estrogen and progesterone in women, testosterone in men, and human growth hormone (HGH) in both.
Both young and menopausal women can suffer from what John Lee, MD, termed “estrogen dominance” (progesterone deficiency). Stimulating excess estrogen can cause draining anxiety, agitation, and muscle tension, among other symptoms. Progesterone has a calming effect on the body.
To rectify hormonal imbalance, a practitioner might prescribe natural bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT). Effective, affordable, natural sources of both estrogen (red clover, non-GMO soy isoflavones, black cohosh) and progesterone (transdermal cream is most effective) are also available without a prescription.
Testosterone in men, which derives in part from progesterone, is significant to male sexuality and reproduction, muscle mass, hair growth, bone density and red blood cell maintenance, and a general sense of well-being. At about age 30, testosterone levels in men begin to decline. Natural testosterone boosters include vitamin D, zinc, healthy fats, and epimedium (proven in animal tests).
A sluggish thyroid gland is one of the most common causes of low energy. Located at the base of the neck, the thyroid gland makes the hormone thyroxine (T4), which converts to triiodothyronine (T3) and reverse T3 (RT3). T3 enhances production of ATP and RT3 slows it down. The hypothalamus in the brain releases thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH), thus causing the pituitary gland (also in the brain) to release thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which controls production of T3 and T4. Excess stress causes the hypothalamus to tell the pituitary to produce less TSH, which then results in decreased T4 and overall thyroid activity.
While a holistic practitioner’s input is critical to the management of hypothyroidism, it is valuable to note that a correct zinc-copper ratio, and proper levels of selenium, l-tyrosine, and iodine, all positively impact thyroid function. A natural thyroid glandular supplement can also boost thyroid function.
While individuals suffering chronically from depleted energy have many natural self-care options, medical testing can provide critical specific guidance. Treatment by a holistic practitioner is especially important when a genetic or degenerative disease may be an issue.
The statements in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are not intended to take the place of a physician’s advice. The natural remedies discussed herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
By Michael Dworkin, PD, CCN, a Registered Pharmacist and State Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CT Cert. No. 232), with J. Erika Dworkin, Certified Lifestyle Educator and Board Cert. Holistic Nutrition (Pending). Owner of the Manchester Parkade Health Shoppe (860.646.8178, 378 Middle Turnpike West, Manchester, CT, www.cthealthshop.com), Pharmacist Dworkin has been guiding patients since 1956. Erika is available to speak to groups. All statements in this article are research-based and references are available upon request.