What’s really going on with fatigue?
Is it a symptom of an underlying illness? Or, is fatigue the illness itself? And if it is, what’s the root cause of your low energy levels?
Before starting this article check out my posts on what causes chronic fatigue syndrome? Some researchers believe the cause to be related to your hormones. Others think it is your genetics that predisposes you to the illness. And then there are others who believe chronic fatigue is caused by infections like the Epstein-Barr virus.
The above all play a role in chronic fatigue syndrome. But on their own, each of these causes fails to get deep enough to determine the real root cause of fatigue. I’m not saying that your hormones, genetics, and/or infections aren’t important – they are – but there’s something much more important to focus on in order to successfully overcome chronic fatigue.
The mitochondria – your body’s power plants
Mitochondria are the most important aspect of your cells (especially when it comes to energy production). Mitochondria produce a substance called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the energy that powers your cells. Which in turn is what powers you.
If your cells aren’t producing sufficient ATP, you’re going to experience fatigue.
Think of ATP as energy. Low ATP equates to low energy. So, if you want to get to the root cause of your fatigue, you need to look at your body’s production of ATP. To increase your energy, you need to increase your ATP production. It’s as simple (and complicated) as that.
Your body’s mitochondria produce their energy (ATP) through a complicated chemical reaction known as oxidative phosphorylation, or, the Krebs Cycle. In the Kreb’s cycle, your mitochondria take sugar (glucose) from your food and combine it with oxygen to produce ATP (energy) and water.
This process underlies all of the energy production in your body. If your mitochondrial function is not optimized, you’re going to be headed towards fatigue. And your mitochondrial function will be prone to decline with the right genetics, hormone imbalances, and infectious agents. Mitochondrial function is the root cause of chronic fatigue syndrome.
Chronic fatigue syndrome is what results after many years of lowered mitochondrial function. But before your tiredness becomes debilitating, subtle forms of low energy are the early warning signs that your mitochondria are affected.
Getting to the root cause of chronic fatigue syndrome
ATP is so essential to your energy (and your life!) that if you went without it for just a few seconds, you would be dead. It’s easy to imagine how even a slight decrease in ATP production could result in lowered energy. And if this occurs over the long term, you guessed it, chronic fatigue syndrome is diagnosed.
In order to gather energy from adenosine triphosphate (ATP), your body “breaks it down” into adenosine diphosphate (ADP). This chemical reaction from ATP to ADP releases energy. It’s this energy that powers absolutely everything that you do.
Your body has mitochondria in nearly every cell. The only exception is your red blood cells – these guys don’t have mitochondria. If the mitochondria in your muscles aren’t working properly, you’re going to experience the feeling of lactic acid in your muscles (whether you worked out or not). It’s your mitochondria that clear the lactic acid out of your cells.
If your mitochondria are misbehaving in your gut, you may experience conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, and even food sensitivities. Remember, you have mitochondria in nearly every cell in your body. Therefore, if your mitochondria aren’t functioning optimally, you can experience symptoms nearly anywhere.
This is why the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome are so wide-spread. Depending on where your mitochondria are most affected will determine your most prominent symptom(s).
The proper functioning of your body is entirely dependent on the health of your mitochondria. If you want to overcome fatigue, increase your energy, and/or improve your focus, put your effort towards optimizing your mitochondrial health.
Now that you know how important mitochondrial health is to increase your energy, it’s time to learn how to create a positive return on your body’s energy creation cycle.
The energy equation
Imagine your energy to be like your money. It’s easy and fun to spend it but a great deal of work is required in order to make it. Energy is different than money in that you have no overdraft protection; you cannot take out an energy loan. If you run out of energy, you die.
Fatigue is the symptom that prevents you from running out of energy. Fatigue forces you to conserve your energy. In a sense, fatigue is the symptom that saves you from dying.
In order to feel energized, you need to create more energy than you consume. Do this and your fatigue will greatly improve. Now, this too has a point of diminishing return. Too much energy combined with little expenditure results in weight gain. When it comes to energy, you want your bank account to be close to a zero balance at all times.
You can increase your energy production by:
- Eating a healthy diet.
- Getting 8 hours of sleep each night.
- Taking the proper supplements that support your mitochondria in producing ATP (energy production).
- Ensuring your thyroid and adrenal glands are functioning optimally.
You can decrease your energy expenditure by:
- Lowering your stress levels.
- Fighting off infection(s).
- Avoiding foods you are allergic/sensitive to.
- Keeping your exercise intensity and frequency within modest levels.
The goal here is to have a slight surplus of energy each day. To address the root cause of chronic fatigue syndrome, you need to maximize energy delivery to your cells and minimize your energy expenditure. You need to have a (slight) positive balance in your bank account.
Chronic fatigue syndrome is like aging
If you’re over the age of seventy, your mitochondrial function will be about fifty percent less than it was when you were thirty. A decline in your mitochondrial function has been proposed as the very reason why you age in the first place. (1, 2) If you could prevent mitochondrial decline, you’d prevent aging (and fatigue).
Much like aging, the root cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is a decline in mitochondrial function. (3, 4, 5) At the time of this writing, researchers have not figured out how to prevent aging. But they have figured out how to address chronic fatigue syndrome – it’s in the mitochondria.
Happy mitochondria are energy production machines. Sad mitochondria never get their work done. This results in energy deficits. If you want more energy, you need your body to be full of happy mitochondria.
Happy mitochondria vs sad mitochondria
Chronic fatigue syndrome does not develop overnight. Instead, it’s a slow march towards decreased mitochondrial function. And it often starts with a condition called early-onset mitochondrial dysfunction (EOMD). EOMD is the alarm bells going off in your body. Before you feel tired, you may experience:
- Difficulties focusing and/or maintaining your concentration.
- Irritability/moodiness for no apparent reason.
- Challenges getting out of bed in the morning.
- Intense food cravings.
These symptoms are indicators that your mitochondria are not functioning properly. They are the early warning signs that your mitochondrial function is starting to decline.
Remember, your energy level is your energy creation minus your energy expenditure. If you experience the above symptoms, it’s time to start paying closer attention to the health of your mitochondria! It’s much easier to prevent chronic fatigue syndrome than it is to recover from it.
Your mitochondria’s effect on fatigue
In cases of chronic fatigue syndrome, there are two mitochondrial issues that are of paramount importance in energy production:
- Poor Stamina (both mentally and physically)
- Poor stamina results from your mitochondria’s decreased ability to produce ATP.
- Those with CFS are able to do activities but only for a very short period of time. They fatigue very quickly.
- Stamina requires energy production. In CFS, energy production is severely restricted. This results in low stamina in both physical and mental endeavors.
- Delayed fatigue (both mentally and physically)
- I’m sure you’re familiar with this symptom. It’s the energy hangover. After doing too much your fatigue worsens for a few days.
- This occurs because your mitochondria are low in energy sources. New energy molecules need to be created from scratch. This process can take days.
- While your body is creating new energy molecules, you’ll experience the fatigue/energy hangover.
To comfortably overcome fatigue, you need to be mindful to work within the parameters of your mitochondrial function. It can be incredibly tempting to push it on days when you feel energized. Unfortunately, this results in the energy hangover I described above. Your goal is to always try to maintain a slightly positive balance in your energy bank account!
What causes mitochondrial decline?
By this point, you’re well aware of how your mitochondria affect your energy levels, right?
Your mitochondria are the root cause of your fatigue. It’s very common to have normal lab values let still suffer from a decline in mitochondrial function. Unfortunately, there’s not yet a lab test to measure mitochondrial function.
If you’re feeling fatigued, tired, or, worn out it’s time to focus on your mitochondria. Below, I list the most common causes of mitochondrial decline.
When it comes to optimizing your mitochondrial function, all nutrition plans are not created equal. You’re going to want to opt for a nutrition plan that emphasizes energy (ATP) production. This is the ketogenic diet. The keto diet produces nearly 4x as much ATP as any other nutrition plan.
I’ve written at length on why the ketogenic diet is the best diet for chronic fatigue syndrome here. If your current nutrition plan is more aligned with a standard Canadian/Amerian/European diet, I recommend starting with a fatigue reset diet. This is a much more gentle introduction to the keto diet.
If dramatic alterations to your nutrition are not feasible right now, check out our free eBook – Fix your Fatigue. You’ll find seven simple steps to increase your energy without dramatic dietary changes!
If you can only do one thing to your nutrition, let it be to eat real food. If you do nothing else, eating real food will help improve your energy levels. I cannot emphasize this enough. The pre-packaged foods found down the aisles of your local grocery store do not empower your mitochondria to make energy. If your food doesn’t rot, don’t eat it!
When it comes to fatigue, there are three hormone categories that are of primary importance:
- Thyroid hormones (T3, T4)
- Adrenal hormones (DHEA, cortisol)
- Blood sugar hormones (insulin, cortisol)
Before even considering a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome, ensure you have your thyroid, adrenal, and blood sugar hormones thoroughly examined. If any of these hormones are not optimized, you’re going to experience both a decline in mitochondrial function and fatigue.
Thyroid hormones are needed for your mitochondria to produce ATP. If you have low levels of thyroid hormone(s), you’re going to feel fatigued. If you have high levels of thyroid hormone(s) you’re going to feel nervous, anxious, and/or restless. For proper mitochondrial function, you need your thyroid hormones to be in perfect balance.
Adrenal hormones like cortisol have a profound influence on your energy. If your cortisol does not rise first thing in the morning (this is called the cortisol awakening response) you’re going to have troubles getting out of bed and feel exhausted by the midafternoon.
When you eat your blood sugar rises. To ensure your blood sugar stays within a healthy range, your body excretes insulin. Insulin helps to lower your blood sugar. Cortisol helps to raise your blood sugar. The insulin-cortisol balance can become affected when you consume carbohydrates your body doesn’t tolerate. If your cortisol and insulin levels become imbalanced, you’ll experience fatigue.
I’m confident you’re already well aware that stress impacts your energy levels. High stress often equates to low energy. But all too often, your body can be undergoing a serious stress response without you even knowing it!
You see, most of the problematic stressors in your life are insidious. Stress due to finances, family, relationships, work, etc. often have an ebb and flow to them. Meaning that there will be times of high stress and times of low stress. Your body is wired to deal with stresses of this nature.
What becomes challenging to deal with is when your body is subjected to stresses that do not ever offer a reprieve. And more often than not, these are the hidden stresses. They’re likely lurking below the surface without you being consciously aware of them.
To ensure your body is properly managing (hidden) stress, look to the following common causes:
This is not meant to downplay perceived stress. Perceived stress is likely what comes to mind when you think of stress. To overcome fatigue, you’ll also need to ensure your perceived stresses are minimized. That means more walks outside, more time meditation, and more hot baths!
In summary, chronic stress affects your mitochondria. And not in a good way. To get to the root cause of your fatigue, start by examining the common hidden stresses. If they’re present you need to remedy them. Then, work on reducing your percieved stress by adopting stress-reduction strategies.
Ok, there you have it, the real root cause of chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s all about your mitochondrial health.
Now, I want to hear from you!
What have you found best helps improve your mitochondria?!
Also published on Medium.