Did your ancestors suffer from fatigue?
If they did, you wouldn’t be reading this blog. In the paleolithic era, fatigue = death. So, if you’re struggling with fatigue, you may want to think about aligning your nutrition with that of your ancestors. In other words, aligning your diet with your genetics.
For thousands of years, your ancestors only had access to carbohydrates at certain times during the year. Over that time, these genes perfectly adapted to the environment. The genes that make up you and I have not had the time to adapt to the modern, agricultural era of food production.
Today, you have access to all the carbs you want year round. This increase in carbohydrate type and amount could be the hidden reason you’re experiencing fatigue!
What exactly is a carb? And how do they make you tired?
Have you noticed fatigue or brain fog shortly after eating? An intolerance to carbohydrates may be contributing to your low energy levels!
Nearly half of the food a typical North American eats comes from carbohydrates. This includes both refined and unrefined carbohydrates.
Unrefined carbohydrates are eaten in their natural form and include:
- Whole grains
Refined carbohydrates have been processed in some way and include:
- All forms of sugar
- Fruit juices
- Flours (whether they contain gluten or not)
While you likely know you should eat more food from the first group, it’s safe to say that for most of you in the first world, your carbohydrate intake is primarily of the refined variety. Compare this with your ancestors. If your ancestors were of mixed European descent, it’s likely that they got only 30% of their calories by eating unrefined carbohydrates.
Remember, you’re likely getting 50% of your calories from carbohydrates. That’s twenty percent more calories from carbohydrate sources than your ancestors ate. And, it’s likely that a lot of those carbohydrates are coming from refined sources.
How many carbs are you eating?
For those of you unsure what I mean by the typical North American getting half of their calories from carbohydrates, imagine your daily food intake consists of 1700 calories total. Of this, 50% or 850 calories per day come from carbohydrate sources.
If you’re keen on finding out exactly how many carbohydrates you’re eating, download an app like cronometer or my fitness pal. Simply punch in the foods you eat for a few days and you’ll see precise percentages of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
If even the thought of tracking your food in an app makes you fatigued, the eyeball method can help give you a ballpark estimate of your carb intake. At your next meal, take a good look at your plate.
- How much of your plate is filled with protein? (beef, pork, fish, chicken etc.)
- How much of your plate is filled with fat? (nuts, seeds, butter, yogurt, oils)
- How much of your plate is filled with carbs? (potatoes, rice, grains, breads, fruits, vegetables)
Estimate the percentages of proteins to carbohydrates to fats based on how much of your plate they cover. Do this for each meal of the day. This exercise should help you ballpark what percentage of your meals are made up of carbohydrates.
How many carbs should you eat to overcome fatigue?
Well, it depends…
Carbohydrates made up less than 5% of calories in traditional Inuit cultures that depended on hunting for survival. However, the Kitavan tribe in the South Pacific had near year-round access to fresh fruits and vegetables, so nearly 70% of their calories came from carbohydrates.
As I mentioned earlier, if you’re of mixed European ancestry, your ancestors likely got about 30% of their calories from carbohydrate sources. But let’s keep in mind that their carbohydrate intake would vary greatly depending on the seasons (remember, this was well before agriculture).
During the late summer and early autumn, your ancestors would likely have consumed more than 30% of their daily calories from carbohydrates. This would occur because fruits and vegetables would be plentiful. But in the late fall, winter, and early spring, there would be minimal carbohydrates available.
In these times, your ancestors would likely have subsisted on high fat, low carbohydrate or ketogenic style diets. During these months, your ancestor’s carbohydrate intake would be well below 30% – perhaps even as low as 5% – similar to traditional Inuit First Nation cultures.
For optimum health, do as your ancestors did. Align your diet to mimic theirs. This is how you beat fatigue.
Diets and fatigue
You are a unique snowflake. Your friend who completely stopped eating carbs while following the ketogenic diet may have amazing amounts of energy – but it may make you feel intense amounts of fatigue and make your stomach nauseous. And the high carb diet that gives people the energy to CrossFit five times a week may make others so tired they can barely function.
The point I’m trying to make is that some carbs will make you tired. Others will give you energy. But what exactly those foods are is unique to you. This is the problem with diets.
Diets cause fatigue because they don’t consider you as a unique individual. The only thing diets consider is calories in vs calories out. Diets offer templates – general guidelines to follow. However, you need to be cautious to avoid getting trapped in the rules of a particular diet plan. A proper diet is about far more than calories. It’s about individualized nutrition. It’s about aligning your food with your genetics.
Outside of a high carb or low carb diet is a nutrition plan that is just right for you. This plan will allow you to comfortably achieve your wellness goals and reach your optimum energy levels. However, to develop this nutrition plan and beat fatigue, you’ll need to do some searching to discover your ideal carbohydrate intake.
The fatigue-carb connection
In an incredible study, researchers continuously monitored blood sugar levels of more than 800 participants. Between the participants, more than 46,000 meals were tested to see the effect on each individual’s blood sugar. Through this study, researchers found that the blood sugar reading between individuals varied widely – even if they ate the exact same meal! (3)
In the book Wired To Eat, Robb Wolf cites a study where one participant had a dramatic increase in blood sugar after eating a banana. Yet when this same participant ate a cookie, his blood sugar readings remained stable. The blood sugar readings in another participant were the exact opposite – low blood sugar readings after eating a banana and high blood sugar readings after eating a cookie.
Common knowledge would lead you to believe that bananas are good and cookies are bad. But in this example, bananas would actually contribute more to this individual’s weight gain and fatigue levels than cookies. In theory, this individual could be quite healthy if he avoided bananas and ate cookies (in moderation, of course). I know this is an extreme example but it illustrates my point: a personalized approach to nutrition needs to be put in place.
How exactly do carbs cause fatigue?
The fatigue-carb connection comes about through the relationship between insulin and cortisol.
When you eat a carbohydrate source that your body doesn’t tolerate, you’ll experience a rapid rise in blood sugar levels shortly after eating. In response to high blood sugar levels, your body will release a hormone called insulin. Insulin helps to lower blood sugar levels.
Unfortunately, your body will often release too much insulin. When this happens, you’ll feel hungry, shakiness, weakness, fatigue, sweating, and anxiety. This phenomenon is called rebound hypoglycemia. Rebound hypoglycemia is a low blood sugar reading that occurs shortly after eating.
Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) is a tremendous stress to your body. In fact, your body cannot tell the difference between types of stress. As far as your body is concerned, stress = stress. It responds in a similar manner whether you run into a bear or if your blood sugar drops to low levels.
In response to this stress, your body will release a different hormone called cortisol. You probably know cortisol as the stress hormone. It’s released in times of high stress – like when you run into a bear on a hiking trail. To combat stress, cortisol pulls sugar out of your cells and back into your blood. This raises your blood sugar. And (hopefully) alleviates those uncomfortable low blood sugar symptoms. If you see a bear, moving sugar into your blood primes your body for the flight or flight response.
Your blood sugar goes down but cortisol brings it back up. What’s the big deal?
If this was a one-time deal, it wouldn’t be an issue. That’s a small stress that your body can handle. The real problem occurs when this happens daily. Maybe even three (or more) times a day. Each time you eat a carbohydrate source that your body doesn’t tolerate, it has to release cortisol to help re-balance your blood sugar.
If you’re eating carbs that you don’t tolerate on the regular, your body is forced to release cortisol on a daily basis. Imagine running into a bear every day. How stressful would that be?
It is this chronic release of cortisol that eventually causes fatigue. Are you familiar with adrenal fatigue? When your body is consistently releasing cortisol, it is preparing for a stressful event. Over the long-term, daily preparation for small stresses (like the blood sugar irregularities caused by eating carbs your body cannot tolerate) results in your brain decreasing cortisol production.
What’s the main symptom of lowered cortisol levels?
This how carbohydrates make you tired. If you change your diet to consume only well-tolerated carb sources, you’re going to overcome fatigue.
Also published on Medium.