Could your breakfasts, lunches, and dinners be a hidden cause of fatigue?
Yes. Something as simple as the food you eat could very well be causing your fatigue. But these food-related offenders often hide below the surface. They don’t cause fatigue immediately. Instead, they’re more like a chronic, slow-motion drain on your energy reserves.
Below, I’ll address the three most common food-related causes of fatigue. Read on!
1. Food sensitivities causing fatigue
Food sensitivities are different than food allergies. Both will contribute to your fatigue, though food allergies tend to be more noticeable. If you’ve ever met someone with a peanut allergy, odds are they’ve been well aware of that reaction for a long period of time. Food sensitivities are often not as dramatic as food allergies in terms of symptoms.
The determining factor between a food allergy and a food sensitivity is the immune system activated in response to a food protein. In food allergies, your IgE immune system is activated. Symptoms of food allergies include: (1)
- Rash or hives
- Cramping or stomach pain
- Itchy skin
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Swelling of the airways to the lungs
In food sensitivities, your IgG or IgA immune system is activated. Symptoms of food sensitivities include:
- Muscle and joint pain/stiffness
- Stomach pain
- Gas, cramps, and/or bloating
- Heartburn or GERD
- Irritability or nervousness
The English language does a disservice to food sensitivities. Sensitivity implies that the reaction is mild, minor, or even insignificant. But that’s not the case. If you want to get technical, celiac disease is actually a food sensitivity (it’s an IgG reaction to the gluten protein). I’m confident any celiac patient will tell you that his/her reaction to gluten is anything but mild, minor, or insignificant.
The bottom line: if you have a food sensitivity, take it seriously. Especially if you’re dealing with fatigue.
What happens when you eat a food you’re sensitive to?
Your immune system is triggered by the offending food protein. Your immune system seeks out the offending food and looks to neutralize the problem. To do this, your body creates antibodies to the food in question. For example, if you’re sensitive to egg whites, your immune system will create antibodies to the egg white protein. If you consume a large omelet for breakfast, your body will be flooded with IgG (or, IgA) antibodies.
When your body creates antibodies to egg whites, this is known as an adaptive immune response or, a type II immune response. When you eat egg whites, your body also reacts with what is known as its innate immune system or, type I immune response.
The type II response is unique to egg whites (or any other food you may be allergic/sensitive to). The type I response is a generalized immune system response. Your body’s reaction doesn’t change based on the offending allergen. One of the common responses of your body’s type I immune system is a signal to release histamine.
Histamine is a pro-inflammatory substance (something that produces inflammation). When you injure your ankle playing football, the swelling that occurs is (in part) caused by histamine release. Inflammation – in moderation – is not bad. Inflammation becomes problematic when it is chronic.
When an area of your body experiences histamine release (inflammation) it responds to this stimulus by releasing cortisol. Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory hormone. That’s why cortisone injections work like magic – they alleviate the inflammation in the area.
This becomes problematic in cases of chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation requires a lot of cortisol secretion. Imagine you eat egg whites every day. Every day, your body is having to secrete cortisol to combat the mild inflammation caused by your food sensitivity to egg whites. Over the long term, your body will decrease its cortisol production.
Because the constant release of cortisol is in itself a stress to your body. And your body doesn’t like to be stressed. Once your cortisol levels have decreased, you’re going to experience fatigue. And lots of it. If you want to beat fatigue, you need to avoid any potential food allergies and/or food sensitivities.
2. Blood sugar imbalances causing fatigue
As I have previously mentioned, there is a strong connection between blood sugar and fatigue. Do you remember how in the first section I told you that cortisol was an anti-inflammatory hormone? Cortisol is also what is known as a glucocorticoid.
Glucocorticoids, like cortisol, are essential hormones in your body’s metabolism of glucose (sugar). This system functions great when your blood sugar is balanced. But when you start to have wild swings or irregularities in your blood sugar, fatigue is imminent.
Cortisol and insulin are like yin and yang when it comes to your blood sugar. When your blood sugar is elevated, your body secretes insulin. Insulin takes the sugar in your blood (where it’s dangerous) and escorts it into your cells (where it’s safe).
When your blood sugar is low, your body secretes cortisol. Cortisol helps take the sugar (glucose) molecules from inside your cells and transport them back into your blood. This raises your blood sugar levels. Which should help make you less hangry.
Your blood sugar rises after eating and falls when you’ve not eaten for some time. This is a healthy or normal function. Fatigue becomes a problem when your body struggles to maintain blood sugar balance.
Problems arise if:
a) Your diet consists of too many carbohydrates (which is the case for many North Americans).
b) You consume certain carbohydrates that your body struggles to tolerate.
When your body is overwhelmed by too many carbohydrates (think of Christmas dinner) or carbohydrates it cannot tolerate, blood sugar irregularities emerge. What often happens is something called insulin resistance (also known as pre-diabetes). Carbohydrates are digested into glucose (sugar). And sugar raises your blood sugar.
When your blood sugar is elevated, insulin is released. Unfortunately, in cases of too many carbohydrates and/or carbohydrates you cannot tolerate, your body releases too much insulin. This causes your blood sugar to fall to uncomfortable levels.
Have you ever been hungry less than an hour after eating?
This phenomenon is called rebound hypoglycemia or post-prandial hypoglycemia. And it’s a common early indicator of insulin resistance and fatigue. Low blood sugar triggers your body to release cortisol. Cortisol helps to bring your blood sugar back into normal ranges.
When cortisol is required to be excreted on a regular basis (to maintain your blood sugar) you’re going to fatigue. Remember, cortisol is secreted in times of stress (low blood sugar is a common stress). And it is incredibly stressful for your body to keep secreting cortisol.
Eventually, your body is going to decrease its cortisol output. When this occurs, you experience hypocortisolism (commonly known as adrenal fatigue). And the main symptom of hypocortisolism is, of course, fatigue.
What makes blood sugar imbalances so insidious is that they happen below the surface. In all likelihood, you won’t even know your blood sugar is imbalanced until you’re well into the illness. This is why checking your blood sugar (even when you have no symptoms) can be so helpful.
Your fasting blood sugar (no food for 12 hours) should be between 4.3 – 4.7 mmol/L. Two hours after eating a meal (post-prandial blood sugar) should be no more than 6.0 mmol/L. If your readings are outside of this range, you need to balance your blood sugar in order to overcome fatigue.
3. Low-calorie diets causing fatigue
Way back in the 1800’s, Nicolas Clement discovered what we know today as calories. A calorie is defined as the heat energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.
Calories do more than raise the temperature of water. They give you energy. The energy that your body requires to perform the basic functions that keep you alive.
Each of you has something called a basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is the number of calories your body requires to digest food, breathe, keep your heart beating, etc. When you exercise, your body needs more energy in the form of food. This occurs because exercise consumes energy (calories).
When you take in too many calories, your body stores the excess as body fat. When you take in too few calories, your body releases the calories you have stored (aka you burn fat). This is, of course, an overly simplistic explanation of what happens. If it was really this simple, everyone would lose weight when they go on a diet.
Simple or not, if you deprive your body of the calories it needs to perform basic functions, you’re going to experience fatigue. If you elect to decrease your calories and increase your exercise, you’re putting your body in an even more drastic state of energy deprivation.
What’s the most common symptom experienced with calorie restriction?
If you’re working to overcome a condition like chronic fatigue syndrome, you need to ensure you are not unknowingly putting your body in a state of intense calorie deprivation. Identifying exactly how many calories you need can be a tricky endeavor. There are formulas like the Harris-Benedict Equation to help determine your calorie needs. But again, these are overly simplistic.
Your brain works against you when it comes to determining how many calories you need. New research has shown that your basic caloric needs move in an upward direction depending on the amount you eat. (2) This means that if you were once overweight, your basic calorie needs remain set at the higher level.
This helps to explain why you feel famished when you start a diet. Even if you’re eating enough calories accordingly to your age, weight, and activity level. Your brain still thinks you need a higher level of calories each day because of your previous weight.
This does not mean losing weight is not worth the effort. If you want to overcome fatigue, achieving (and maintaining) a healthy body weight is essential. But I recommend you go about your weight loss endeavors in a different manner than simply cutting calories.
To obtain calorie reduction (aka weight loss) without aggravating fatigue, I recommend you eat foods that send strong satiety (feeling full) signals to your brain but contain a minimal amount of calories. In general, these foods are high fiber, high protein, and offer a modest level of palatability. Think, white potatoes with nothing on them!
Potatoes aside, other foods that fit the criteria include:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Meats (pork, chicken, beef)
- Beans and lentils
Ensure your home contains none of the hyper-palatable “junk” foods. These foods offer little in the way of satiety and a lot of excess calories. Stick to real/whole foods and you’ll be able to achieve your weight loss goals without ever experiencing an increase in your fatigue!
Learn more about how food causes fatigue.