Fatigue is a common ailment that most of us will experience at some point in our lives. In fact, it has been reported that each year, approximately 1.5 million Australians present to their doctors with fatigue. This isn’t surprising considering how busy, high-stress and emotionally demanding many of our lifestyles have become.
Fatigue generally describes a feeling of unrelenting tiredness, lethargy and/or lack of motivation that lasts for several weeks. Daily, low-grade fatigue is a symptom of an underlying issue, condition or disease. It can be caused by a myriad of interacting physical, psychological or medical factors such as insufficient sleep, increased stress or catching the influenza virus. Fatigue can hence be remediated by addressing poor lifestyle habits or the underlying medical issue. In this article, we will explore some simple ways you can combat fatigue with your diet and eating habits. An overwhelming, sudden-onset of fatigue or fatigue that persists for longer than 6 months may be a sign of a more serious medical condition such as myalgic encephalomyelitis, and as such is not the focus of this article.
When You Eat
Before we dive into precisely what you could eat to combat fatigue, it would be a good idea to assess your daily eating patterns.
Firstly, do you skip breakfast? An extra 30 minutes of sleep may feel like a good compromise in the early hours of the morning, but having breakfast is critical for refuelling your glycogen stores and stabilising your blood glucose levels throughout the day. In turn, this assists with maintaining steady energy levels. It might also be tempting to reach for a cup of coffee as your energy levels dip throughout the day. However, this potentially sets you up for a viscous cycle of poor sleep, fatigue and consuming excessive caffeine. As caffeine sensitivity and sleep need differs between individuals, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how much caffeine you can consume and when you should stop taking it. Nonetheless, increased caffeine consumption has been linked to reduced sleep quality. With this in mind, aim to stop consuming high-caffeine foods such as energy drinks, black tea or coffee around lunch time. Additionally, avoid drinking alcohol when you want to stay alert as alcohol can have sedative effects.
What You Eat
A quick google search reveals countless foods that may fight fatigue. However, it is critical to understand that it isn’t necessarily particular foods that help combat fatigue, but it’s the nutrients they contain that benefit you. This is especially true if you are deficient in a certain nutrient. Menstruating women, for instance, are at a higher risk of iron deficiency anaemia. A tell-tale sign of iron-deficiency and associated anaemia is fatigue. Foods high in iron include lean beef, oysters, dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, and fortified cereals or breads. One Australian study focusing on this cohort of women found that feelings of overall vitality and energy were positively associated with serum ferritin (a biomarker for iron storage in the blood). This was magnified in women whose iron intake was increased via diet, rather than supplementation, despite serum ferritin levels being higher in women who took supplements. This is likely due to the synergistic effects of nutrients, as absorption rarely occurs in isolation.
Similarly, hypomagnesemia (i.e. magnesium deficiency) has also been associated with fatigue; among other symptoms such as nausea, lack of appetite and muscle weakness, as well as a whole range of medical conditions- from psychiatric disorders to metabolic disorders. This is because magnesium is needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in our body. Although severe magnesium deficiency is rare in developed countries, sub-optimal Western-style diets increase the likelihood of developing hypomagnesemia and subsequently experiencing low-grade fatigue. However, this can be combatted by consuming foods high in magnesium such as halibut fish, nuts, cooked soybeans, cooked spinach and fortified cereals.
Additionally, ensuring you have an adequate intake of B-vitamins through a varied diet will help you fight fatigue. Although we only need small amounts of B-vitamins every day, they are present in several foods such as vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish and lean meat. As such, it is relatively easy to meet your RDIs for each B-vitamin without supplementation.
You may have noticed sports nutrition stores and social media fitness influencers touting Co-Q10 (also known as coenzyme Q10 or Vitamin Q10) as the ultimate energy-boosting supplement. But does Co-Q10 really live up to their claims? Let’s start with what it really is– a ubiquitous lipid antioxidant endogenously made by the body. This basically means that Co-Q10 is present in every cell of our body and is also synthesised by our body. It is essential for shuttling redox (i.e. oxygen and hydrogen) molecules through the electron transport chain of our cells’ mitochondria (i.e. the energy powerhouse of our cells), ultimately affecting the production of ATP and subsequently energy. So theoretically, a deficiency in Co-Q10 will undoubtedly affect our energy levels. However, deficiencies only occur in disease states characterised by high reactive-oxygen species (ROS) production such as Parkinson’s Disease, cancer and HIV. Even in such states, there is limited evidence to suggest that Co-Q10 supplementation is therapeutic. There are currently no dietary guidelines on Co-Q10 consumption, however red meat, poultry and fish are good sources of the antioxidant.
In addition to micronutrient deficiencies, the type of meal you consume may also induce fatigue. One cross-over, feeding RCT found that when individuals were on diets characterised by a low-glycaemic load (LGL), they reported significantly better mood and energy levels than when they were on a high-glycaemic load (HGL) diet. These reports were pronounced in individuals within the healthy BMI range, as opposed to those with a BMI greater than 28. This study therefore also highlighted the potential relationship BMI may have on fatigue. Low-GI diets typically consist of complex carbohydrates, whole fruits and vegetables, and legumes. Conversely, high-GI diets typically consist of refined carbohydrates and processed foods. So if you’re struggling with fatigue, refrain from carbohydrates such as white bread or rice. Steer clear from discretionary foods such as chips, ice-cream, lollies and carb-loaded café dishes (e.g. loaded fries, triple-stack burgers etc.) or drinks.
The Importance of Hydration
Last but not least, adequate hydration will also help you fight fatigue. One placebo-controlled study of young women mimicked common daily dehydration to test this claim. It found that after only a 1.36% reduction in body mass due to dehydration, participants experienced lowered mood, an increased perception of task difficulty and lowered concentration. Although this was a highly-specific cohort study, we all know that adequate hydration is vital for normal bodily processes. As such, it could be this simple change that helps you get your energy levels back. Try keeping your water bottle on your desk to remind you to drink more water. If you need something a little more flavourful, you could also opt to infuse some mint, citrus fruit, strawberries or cucumber into your water.
The Bottom Line
Fatigue can be a subjective feeling, and as such what works for one individual may not work for the next. This is because diet and eating patterns are only a couple of several aspects that may contribute to experiencing fatigue. However, it is worthwhile to take stock of your eating patterns, micronutrient deficiencies and water intake. If you are otherwise healthy, eating a varied diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, dairy, fish and quality lean meats will ensure your diet bases are covered. Combined with exercise, adequate sleep and adequate rest, you’ll be able to stave off fatigue.
Nadia is a final year Bachelor of Science student, majoring in Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Sydney. Her passion for dietetics, health and wellbeing began as a young foodie with a love for helping people in need, and grew into a dream to become a dietitian.
As an aspiring health professional, Nadia’s long-term goal is to complete a Masters of Nutrition and Dietetics and gain a wealth of experience in all aspects of dietetics – from fertility and gut disorders to mental health. In the meantime, Nadia can be found brunching with friends, binge-watching chick flicks with her Mum and sisters, soaking up the sun between classes and avidly reading fiction and non-fiction books.