Written by Benjamin Semmens, Registered Nutritionist (BHSc)
Hey guys, welcome back to another edition of Friday Q&A, where our head nutritionist Ben answers your questions each week!
This week’s question came from Ella who wanted to know “What foods can I eat to fight fatigue?”
Fatigue is an extremely common condition and can be caused by many underlying factors such as alcohol abuse, health conditions, medications, stress, lack of sleep, and insufficient exercise. However, a lot of people don’t realise that a poor diet is also one of the biggest contributors to fatigue!
The good news is that there are some simple dietary changes that you can make and foods that you can eat that can help you to fight fatigue – regardless of what your circumstances are!
If you’re the type of person that finds it almost impossible to get out bed in the morning or you struggle to be able to do the things you used to love doing, then you may be suffering from fatigue.
Fatigue is described as an overall feeling of tiredness or lack of energy. If you have fatigue, you generally have no energy and motivation to do anything!
In this blog you’ll learn all about what foods you can eat and what dietary changes you can make to fight fatigue to have the energy to do the things you love in life!
Congratulations to Ella who won a $20 gift voucher just for asking Ben a question! You can send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
You’re eating the wrong diet!
Food is a source of energy, that’s why we eat it! Intermittent fasting (IF) is one the latest diet trends that many people claim increases their energy and improves performance.
Intermittent fasting is when you only eat within a restricted time frame, typically around 8-10 hours generally (most the time this just includes skipping breakfast). For example, you’d eat all your food and drinks (water excluded) between 12-8pm (1).
While many people thrive on a fasting diet, some people may really struggle while fasting that can contribute to fatigue. To understand how fasting may or may not work you first need to understand your body uses energy.
We have two main sources of energy that our bodies prefer to use - carbs and fats. When we eat carbs in the diet our body breaks them down into glucose aka blood sugar.
When we don’t have enough blood sugar, our body starts to break down fats in the body creating ketones. When your ketones are high enough you are in a ketogenic state, commonly seen on a keto diet that is thought to improve energy and performance.
The keto diet works by consuming predominantly fats, meaning that our body is being fuelled by ketones rather than glucose. The reason why these are the two main energy sources is that both glucose and ketones can cross the blood brain barrier and can be used as fuel for the brain.
We can function off either carbs or fats, however some people feel better on a mixture of carbs and fats (that most of us eat), while others feel better by eating predominantly fats (aka keto diet).
When you fast you also induce ketogenesis by having a lack of sugar in the blood, leading to the breakdown of fats. While we don’t necessary need carbs in the diet and can use fats instead, some people can really struggle while fasting or on the keto diet due to low blood sugar causing fatigue! (2, 3)
If you try fasting or the keto diet and after a couple of weeks, you’re still feeling fatigued, then there’s no harm in going back to your regular routine that can probably help you to fight fatigue and feel more energised throughout the day.
The Power of Protein
While carbs and fats are the main supply of energy in your body, protein is essential for both growth and recovery that helps fight symptoms of fatigue.
Protein also has some other very important roles including maintaining cell health, transporting vitamins and hormones, and preserving lean muscle mass.
Furthermore, proteins are also required for a healthy immune system, making protein an essential nutrient for your body!
When you eat protein with each meal it helps to slow the digestion of carbs resulting in the sustained release of blood sugar that helps prevent fatigue after a meal.
Animal sources of protein include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. While plant-based sources include legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds. Grains and vegetables also contain protein, but in smaller amounts.
If you’re feeling fatigued, protein can help boost your energy! Aim to eat at least 1 g/kg of protein a day, and make sure you have minimum one protein source with every meal.
Ditch the carb-loaded meals during the day!
If you’re fasting or only eat a couple of times a day you may notice that you’re eating huge carb-loaded meals at lunchtime. The problem with large meals during the day is that they can cause you to feel fatigued and exhausted making it difficult to get through the day after lunch.
The reason why you feel sleepy after a carb-loaded meal is that carbs cause your body to release insulin, that removes all the amino acids (building blocks of protein) from the blood, except for tryptophan!
Tryptophan now has no competing amino acids and enters the brain with ease boosting serotonin levels. While serotonin is known as our “happy” brain chemical, it also helps us to feel relaxed that is the last thing we need in large amounts while trying to get on with our busy day (4).
Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself on Christmas day. Turkey contains particularly high amounts of tryptophan that can explain why you’re on the coach napping by 3pm!
If you’re going to eat a large meal, wait until dinner time once you’ve completed all your tasks. You can avoid hunger and fatigue the next day by eating a large meal at dinner time that refuels you the following day!
One of the simplest and most overlooked ways to avoid fatigue is to keep hydrated! Many people forget the importance of water as its needed for every single chemical reaction in the body. If you’re not hydrated, you’re not functioning as well you could be – its that simple.
By not getting enough water you can enter a state of dehydration, with even mild dehydration causing fatigue, dizziness, and exhaustion. When you’re dehydrated you blood pressure drops causing poor circulation and reduced blood flow to the brain resulting in feeling lightheaded and fatigue (5).
You’ll also experience a drop in blood fluid volume that means your heart has to work even harder to pump nutrients, oxygen, and fluid to all your cells also causing fatigue. Dehydration can even affect your performance and mood, leading to exhaustion (6).
Muscle weakness and cramps are also common when dehydrated causing you to feel fatigued. This is especially common when you exercise. When you sweat during exercise your body works to actively cool itself back to optimal temperature, however this also causes a loss of body fluid (water) and electrolytes causing muscle fatigue (7).
As you can see dehydration causes fatigue in many ways. An easy way to know if you are dehydrated is by looking at your pee. When your pee is a strong yellow colour, this is a sign of dehydration, while if its translucent you may be over-hydrated.
As a general guide, adults should drink around 2 to 2.5 litres of fluid a day and children should drink around 1 to 2 litres a day.
Micronutrients that cause major fatigue!
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that we need in smaller amounts compared to macronutrients (eg. carbs, fats, protein). However, some of these nutrients have a huge role in providing energy to the body and a deficiency can result in fatigue.
Iron deficiency is one of the most common causes of fatigue. Iron is a mineral that has an important role in producing red blood cells that provides oxygen to your body giving you energy. If you’re deficient in iron you may feel weak, sluggish, and unable to focus.
Iron deficiency is more common in plant-based diets. Both animal foods and plant-based foods contain iron, however animal sources contain haem iron that is better absorbed in the gut than non-haem iron found in plants. Iron deficiency is also more common in menstruating women (due to loss of blood), female athletes and pregnant women (8).
If you suspect you have an iron deficiency you may experience symptoms such as stomach upset, weakness, tiredness, lack of energy and complications with memory and concentration.
If you experience any of these symptoms speak to your doctor or healthcare professional. In most cases, iron deficiency can be managed by increasing iron rich foods in the diet.
Animal based sources of iron include red meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Iron can also be found in plant-based sources such as nuts, seeds ( especially hemp seeds), legumes, tofu, oats, and dark leafy greens. Include iron sources in your diet daily to fight fatigue!
B vitamins are a group of vitamins that have many important roles in body, in particular supporting energy production in the body.
Most people aren’t aware that B vitamins help break down carbs, fats, and proteins you eat and converts them into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) - the form of energy that the cells in your body use that gives you energy throughout the day! (9)
B vitamins also provide energy by helping produce red blood cells too, specifically B12 and folate. B12 deficiency is more common on a vegan diet as most our B12 comes from animal sources and supplementing is considered essential for anyone on a vegan diet.
The good news is that vitamin B12 can be taken in a supplement form or through an a B12 injection through your doctor. If you’re vegan, have a chat to your doctor about vitamin B12.
To fight fatigue, make sure you’re eating enough B vitamin foods in your diet by consuming meat, fish, poultry, eggs, legumes, bananas, avocados, nuts, seeds, whole-grains, and green leafy vegetables.
Repair your gut to fight fatigue!
Having an unhealthy gut can also contribute to fatigue. Your gut is essential to your health by regulating digestion, but it’s also where majority of your immune cells live (10).
When you have an unhealthy gut, your body may struggle to absorb essential nutrients causing nutrient deficiencies including iron and vitamin B12. In fact, there has been some evidence to suggest that a person’s population of gut bacteria (gut microbiome) can contribute to chronic fatigue (11).
Furthermore, an unhealthy gut can also contribute to poor sleep that leads to fatigue and exhaustion.
Majority of your serotonin (95%) is produced in the gut that has an important role in not only your mood, but your sleep too. If your gut can’t produce enough serotonin is can cause sleeping difficulties further contributing to fatigue! (12)
Eating fibre also slows down the digestive process resulting in longer and more sustained energy that can also fight fatigue!
The easiest way to make sure your gut is healthy is to eat lots of fibre. Fibre is the indigestible parts of plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Aim for 30-35g of fibre per day.
Fatigue can be caused by many underlying causes such as alcohol abuse, health conditions, medications, stress, lack of sleep, and insufficient exercise. However, a poor diet is also one of the biggest contributors to fatigue.
You don’t have to go on some radical diet to fight fatigue instead you can just keep it simple by working out what diet is best for you, while also making sure you have all the necessary nutrients that give you the energy to thrive.
If you try all these different dietary approaches and you’re still feeling fatigued have a chat to your healthcare professional who will be able to assist you further.
If you have any questions or need support with your health, feel free to email our head nutritionist Ben at email@example.com
This article does not constitute medical advice and does not take into consideration your personal circumstances. Please see your medical professional before implementing the above