‘Why do I feel tired all the time?’ If that’s a question you regularly ask yourself, you may well put it down to long working days or too many late nights out and your response may well be a good night’s sleep and some relaxation time. For many, however, the cause and/or cure is a lot more complex with no clear link between cause, effect and cure. Instead, the causes can be connected, feeding off each other and exacerbating the initial feelings of fatigue through a secondary impact. Understanding the various causes and their relationship is important.
Whilst understanding some of the importance outlined above, it is also essential to understand how to manage fatigue across the spectrum of causes if it is to be managed effectively. In this respect, it is well worth considering the role that nutrition plays in both combating fatigue, but also how poor nutrition may itself be a factor leading to feelings of tiredness and fatigue.
This page will explore tiredness in more detail, highlighting the various causes and will explore the relationship with tiredness and nutrition. We will look into a number of specific energy boosting foods and find out how a nutritionist can help.
On this page
Causes of tiredness
Tiredness and exhaustion are fairly common problems in society today. They are often linked to lifestyle, mood or the build-up of stresses. In addition, however, prolonged feelings of exhaustion may be the result of deeper medical problems and where other symptoms are also experienced. Examples include weight-loss, a change in bowel habits or extreme thirst. Medical advice should be sought in such situations.
There are a vast number of medical conditions that can deplete energy and leave you unusually tired. It is not the intention of this article to encompass and identify every condition, however some of the most well-recognised causes include anaemia, chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as ME), diabetes and glandular fever are other connected conditions. Other, less recognised causes include an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), food intolerances such as coeliac disease and hypoglycaemia.
Weight issues, although not primarily medical in themselves, may also be a cause of tiredness and may lead to medical issues that also cause fatigue. Being underweight or overweight can also contribute to tiredness as the body has to work harder to perform everyday activities. If you are underweight, for example, your muscle strength will be reduced and you could be anaemic, which will leave you feeling drained. Your body could also be lacking in important nutrients that support growth and normal bodily functioning.
Our lifestyles have always included behaviours that can lead to feelings of tiredness, however, modern life seems to have exacerbated the pressures we face. Living in a 24/7 world where technology has created a society that never sleeps, we seem to be running our lives at a breakneck speed and rarely take time out. As a result, the behaviours that have always been prevalent are exacerbated, leading to feelings of exhaustion and fatigue. These behaviours include:
- Drinking too much alcohol.
- Consuming too much caffeine.
- Working late shifts or long hours with long commutes.
- Snacking on the go and eating an unhealthy diet.
- Not getting enough exercise.
- Never taking time out to relax and recuperate.
Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are common causes of tiredness. If you feel anxious or stressed, it is possible you will be struggling to sleep, and research from the Mental Health Foundation shows a link between insomnia and low energy levels. Dealing with the worries and strains of life can make you feel drained - even the positive ones such as moving house or starting a new job.
Nutrition and tiredness
As noted previously, tiredness is a complex issue. Whilst identifying some of the causes above, it can be seen that some are interconnected across the spectrum. Psychological issues such as depression are in reality medical issues, though they may themselves be brought on by lifestyle choices or other external stresses. Likewise, issues around weight can be brought on by lifestyle, psychological issues or by medical factors and can themselves lead to medical or psychological problems. With such a complex interconnectedness, it can be difficult to look at cause and effect, however the one factor that does seem to link these is that of diet and nutrition. Whether your prolonged fatigue is the result of lifestyle, psychological, or medical causes, it seems eating a balanced diet could be a defining factor in helping to address these.
Nutrition for tiredness revolves around energy boosting foods. By this, we do not mean the quick releasing energy bars and drinks athletes use during competitions - although these have their place. Instead, we are talking about foods that form part of a balanced diet and provide optimum nutritional value to support bodily functions, improve emotional and physical health and promote overall well-being. A healthy balance of all the main food groups - starchy foods, five portions of fruits and vegetables, dairy and protein - is considered essential to help combat tiredness in the long-term.
Drinking plenty of water is also essential as dehydration will result in tiredness. Aim to have at least 1.5 litres of water a day, and for an extra energy boost consider adding a slice of fresh lemon.
Eating at regular times is also considered a factor in combating tiredness, as this helps to keep your blood sugar levels steady for longer periods, which keeps tiredness at bay. The quick energy boost released by a chocolate bar or other sugary snack may satisfy us in the short run, but the increased blood sugar levels quickly dip often resulting in us feeling more tired. It would be better to never skip a meal and focus on slow burning starches such as oats, wholegrain breads, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals to provide a slow gradual energy release, as well as a good dose of nutrients and minerals.
A healthy balanced diet - What is it?
Eating a good breakfast
Breakfast is typically known as the ‘forgotten meal of the day’. Many people don’t think about their body’s dietary needs when rushing about in the morning - so skipping breakfast seems the easiest option to save time. But by mid-morning they find themselves flagging. If this sounds like a habit you have got into, now might be the right time to re-evaluate your early morning routine to combat tiredness.
Studies have shown that eating a nutritious breakfast can improve concentration and alertness. It can also stop you from unhealthy snacking throughout the morning, which in turn can prevent obesity and diabetes.
For energy and endurance to combat tiredness, a good blend of protein and carbohydrates is generally advised. Here are a few examples of energy boosting foods if you need something quick and easy to prepare:
- Cereal with yoghurt and fruit.
- Whole grain bagels with cheese.
- Scrambled eggs on toast with fruit.
- Porridge with raisins.
- Sliced hard-boiled eggs in whole wheat pita bread.
- Whole grain toast with peanut butter and fruit.
Beware of the sugar content in your breakfast. Studies have discovered that children who eat a breakfast that is high in sugar are usually hungrier at lunch time and eat even more sugary snacks.
After eating an energy boosting breakfast to combat tiredness, you shouldn’t stop there. Healthy eating should continue throughout the day. Although carbohydrates don’t have the best reputation, the nutrient is still your body’s preferred source of energy. ‘Low-carb’ diets initially give you a good source of energy, but deplete after a certain amount of time.
Experts say that the best way to maximise your body’s potential for energy is to eat a mixture of simple and complex carbohydrates. The slow burning, complex carbohydrates should make up the majority of carbs that we eat. A few examples of complex carbohydrates include starchy vegetables and whole grains such as brown rice, wheat, oats, potatoes and carrots.
This doesn’t mean that you should ignore the simple carbohydrates. These carbs give you a faster burn, such as those found in vegetables, fruit and honey, and can provide a good source of immediate energy.
Complex carbohydrates sustain blood sugars - without them, the body loses steam and you become tired.
For optimum absorption, aim to eat complex carbohydrates that have a high fibre content. Fibre helps the carbs you eat to be absorbed at a slower pace into your body. So you will gain a sustained energy source, rather than a small burst.
‘Bad’ fats such as trans fats and saturated fats are linked to some chronic illnesses, heart disease and some types of cancer. The ‘good’ fats, however, are source of concentrated energy that can help you prevent feeling tired all of the time.
Trans fats that are found in snacks, fried foods, baked goods and margarine, and saturated fats that are found in cream, meat, lard and butter are thought to increase the risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fats that are found in avocados, canola oil, olive oil and nuts have been linked to a decrease in the risk of heart disease.
Don’t be afraid to include unsaturated fats in your diet.
Carbohydrates and fats provide your body with raw energy, but it’s protein that regulates the release of that power. Protein assists growth, maintains cells, preserves lean muscle mass and transports vitamins and hormones.
Sources of protein include:
- low-fat dairy products.
In diets where your body does not get enough fat and carbohydrates to fuel it, protein provides the energy.
Water moves food through your intestines, helps regulate your body’s temperature and helps with joint movement. Also, it is crucial in the production of energy molecules. According to experts, dehydration is one of the main causes of tiredness and having a lack of energy. If you are not well hydrated, instead of supplying you with energy your body will focus its resources into maintaining your water balance.
To combat tiredness, it’s advised to take a water bottle around with you throughout the day and replacing soft drinks with water.
Food and drink to avoid
Another way to fight your prolonged fatigue would be to avoid a number of foods that can result in tiredness:
- Processed foods - If your diet consists mostly of processed foods you may also find your levels of tiredness increase as compared to a diet consisting of fresh fruit and vegetables. Many prepackaged foods contain high levels of sodium and sugar so it is worth reducing these in your diet.
- Caffeine - Caffeine, found in coffee, cola and energy drinks acts as a stimulant and can improve the feelings of alertness, and counter the effects of fatigue. However there is also a suggestion that some of the effects of caffeine are more to ‘normalise’ the lower levels of alertness felt by regular users who have not consumed enough caffeine that day. Too much caffeine, particularly in people who are not used it, may cause the adverse effects of irritability and headache. Cutting back on caffeinated drinks can help stabilise your energy levels to help you feel better.
- Refined carbohydrates - Refined carbs such as white flour and sugar add little nutritional value to your diet. Instead, choose complex carbohydrates and whole grain foods to ensure your body gets the nutrients it needs.
How can a nutritionist help to combat tiredness?
As outlined in this article, the causes of tiredness and fatigue are numerous. There may be underlying medical conditions causing feelings of exhaustion or there may be psychological issues causing stresses and draining an individual. Alternatively it may be an individual's lifestyle, whether by choice or otherwise, that is generating these feelings. To complicate it further, it may also be a combination of different factors or one factor leading to another that is leaving an individual feeling continually tired. Given this complexity, it is necessary to address the issue from a holistic perspective and in this respect, and understanding the nutritional impact of diet is essential. A balanced diet addresses many of the underlying issues and it's important to remember that there is no one nutrient that's responsible for all health ills, and there is no one nutrient that will make us healthy. It really is the overall dietary pattern.
A nutritionist can provide expert advice and support to help you make safe and effective changes to your diet and lifestyle in order to combat tiredness. They will carry out an assessment of your needs and will explore the causes of tiredness in your life that may benefit from nutritional support. From here you will be given a tailored diet plan outlining all the energy boosting foods you need to include in your diet. If you are overweight or underweight, a balanced diet will help to promote weight management, and will help you to feel better emotionally. Seeing a nutritionist can be a great way to make long-term changes to your health and energy levels.
Content reviewed by dietitian, Sian Evans. All content displayed on Nutritionist Resource is provided for general information purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for advice given by your GP or any other healthcare professional.
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