Evidence-based strategies for countering fatigue and over-stress
Fatigue is one of the most common concerns that we face in clinical nutrition and complementary health practice. While the estimates of the prevalence of generalised fatigue in patients seeking primary care (i.e. mostly from medical doctors) range widely from ~8% to over 40%, (1, 2) those of us providing secondary care can see this as a primary or associated complaint in many of our clients. Basically, a lot of people we see are tired and they are damn tired of being tired all the time!
Diagnosable disorders like fibromyalgia in the general population affect around 2% of people, and fewer still exhibit chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). (3) But much of the fatigue seen is a comorbidity of other physical and mental illnesses (depression, in particular, has a very high association with fatigue) (4) but a significant proportion of fatigue is idiopathic or without any apparent cause. (2)
What is fatigue?
What it’s not
It has been stated that around 80% of people in the western world will suffer from ‘Adrenal Fatigue’(5) however, this contention lacks supporting evidence. Adrenal fatigue is usually diagnosed by a ‘catch-all’ questionnaire that makes the diagnosis likely in almost all cases casting immediate doubt on its validity. A functional basis for the questionnaire and the diagnosis of adrenal fatigue because it is thought that ‘hyperadrenia’ (overproduction or excretion of cortisol and other stress hormones) related to acute and chronic stress may eventually lead to hypoadrenia (low cortisol level), matching the exhaustion/fatigue phase of the general adaptation syndrome. (6) However, the vast majority of people presenting symptoms of ‘adrenal fatigue’ show normal or high cortisol levels. (7)
So, what is it?
Fatigue is known, yet hard to define!
It’s related to a range of lifestyle and environmental factors like lack of sleep, reduced clearance of metabolic waste from the brain via the glymphatic system, over-activity of neurons, poor fuelling of neurons and other cells (often related to relative energy deficiency, metabolic disorder, brain injury, or neurodegeneration), oxidative and glycative damage to neurons and other cells, transient (acute) neurotransmitter depletion, transient low cortisol (not ‘adrenal fatigue’) and micronutrient deficiencies.
How do we deal with fatigue? – Evidence-based holistic health practice
There is little published data on treating general fatigue but there is a fairly large body of research on both chronic fatigue and on over-reaching and overtraining in athletes which exhibit very similar effects and causes (over-stress in particular, whether that is training, nutrition, or lifestyle-induced). Often the first step in research begins at both ‘ends of the spectrum’ i.e. performance ßà pathology (disease) because that’s where the money is!
Eat Move and Live Better!
Eat a Natural, Unrefined Diet
Along with the proven benefits of having greater amounts of unrefined (and consequently lesser amounts of ultra-refined foods) in the diet, a diet based on nutrient-dense whole foods will help to reduce the risk of obesity and metabolic disorder, reduce allergens or irritants associated with symptoms of autoimmune conditions, improve gut health through the provision of essential micronutrients and fibres and resistant starches, reduce the burned of oxidation, glycation, and inflammation in the body, and provide for enhanced ‘autoregulation’ of energy intake.
Destress, Meditate and be Mindful
There are a plethora of studies showing the efficacy of meditation for reducing fatigue. Meta-analyses of these studies show a strong effect of mindfulness exercises on stress and fatigue, (8, 9) and have been shown to reduce fatigue in those still suffering from it after already using cognitive behavioural therapy techniques. (10) Interestingly, as few as four sessions have been shown to reduce fatigue, an effect that wasn’t seen in a control group listening to a relaxing audio recording. (11)
Exercise is known to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain. At least 20 min is typically required for anxiety-reducing effects. (8, 9) Exercise is also anti-inflammatory, (12) but over-exercise or over-stress from any cause is pro-inflammatory and over half of all sports injuries are also secondary to overuse. (13) Markers of antioxidant status such as glutathione concentration and inflammatory markers such as interleukin 10 are affected by long periods of intense training. (14) So, exercise helps to mitigate stress and fatigue and helps us to modulate inflammatory and antioxidant pathways, BUT too much (over-reaching) can be just as detrimental as too little.
Overreaching and over-training syndrome in athletes is depicted as a continuum, this is also likely to be the case for generalised ‘stress’. So, excessive exercise (or any other stressor) can be depicted as stress à fatigue à burnout. It’s important to remember that we can habituate ourselves to increased levels of exercise and if we start at a level at which we are comfortable and not over-reacting with excessive stress responses and then incrementally increase volume and/or intensity of our training, we can increase our work threshold.
Eat to move!
Eating encourages activity and activity encourages eating! Physical activity can help people to spur the appetite that helps people to eat more to cover their nutrient bases (especially micronutrients) provides fuel sufficiency to aid recovery from fatigue and preserve hormonal status. However metabolically disordered people can have inverse effects from physical activity, (15) and it’s important that increased in food, where possible, should mostly be from natural, unrefined sources to encourage optimal nutrient-partitioning (in other words, where the fuel is stored – in muscle or fat cells).
Eat yourself lean
In a study of basic training in the French military, 3% of participants became over-trained and these had higher rates of trauma and trauma was also associated with higher body fat levels. (16)
Fuel sufficiency, lipid sufficiency, and carbohydrate sufficiency are all associated with reduced risk of over-stress/over-training. However, this should be in the context of the fuel demands of the individual athlete. In other words, while increasing carbohydrate in athletes is known to improve free testosterone to cortisol ratios (a common marker of over-reaching), excessive carbohydrate can reduce the metabolic efficiency and worsen body composition, especially in those who are more insulin resistant.
Eat yourself well
One of the key aspects of over-stress (and over-training) and chronic fatigue is an increased susceptibility to infection. This can be mitigated by fuel sufficiency and a nutrient-dense diet supplying all the primary and secondary nutrients conducive to health but a common under-appreciated aspect of immunity in athletes is the role of protein. Higher protein intake can encourage better regulation of immune and inflammatory status affecting fatigue and its symptoms. (17) The amino acid glutamine, in particular, is likely to reduce the incidence of infections, (18-20) and improve immunity in athletes. (21) Athletes suffering from the overtraining syndrome (OTS) appear to maintain low plasma glutamine levels for months or years. (22)
Take it easy when resuming training and increase volume as able
A sure-fire way to derail your efforts to come back from fatigue is to push your training too hard or to resume overly intense training when you begin to feel better. It is best to start with an almost ridiculously easy volume and intensity and then incrementally increase that to build your overall work-tolerance rather than ‘smashing’ yourself at each session. Important considerations for fatigue are that ‘grind’ lifts with a slower velocity may be preferable to explosive or ‘metabolic-style’ workouts during times of recovery from fatigue due to the reduced volume required for neuromuscular adaptations, reduced eccentric loadings and better overall neuromuscular adaptations post-exercise. (23) Longer rest periods > 2 min per set are also preferred for those in the recovery phase from fatigue and these facilitate an improved free-testosterone to cortisol ratio. (24)
Which supplements might help?
Protein powder: Helps to preserve overall protein intake and provides additional glutamine
Fish oil: Provides omega-3 fatty acids linked to improved immune and inflammatory status
A good quality multi-nutrient product: Providing minerals and vitamins that have demonstrated benefits for those with fatigue – especially, iron (caution should be exercised as some people have high iron levels and are at risk of iron-overload) zinc, copper, selenium, and vitamins A, C, E, and B6 (17, 25)
10 take-home tips!
- Drink 2 x large glasses of water first thing upon rising
- Eat 6+ serves of vegetables, 2+ serves of berries, and fruit according to your carb tolerance daily
- Take a multi (make sure it’s a good one!)
- Take fish oil
- Meditate daily
- Move for at least 20 min per day
- Do some resistance training – start back with low-volume strength training. I.e. 2-3 exercises for 1-2 sets of 3-6 reps, 2-6 x per week at a load that you can handle easily (but increase this by small increments as often as possible!)
- Base your meals on quality protein
- Don’t be scared of naturally occurring fats
- Eat carbs according to your activity levels, and tolerance BUT not at the expense of vegetable or protein intake
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