Nutritional therapy can support those struggling with constant tiredness by providing expert guidance and information to make safe and effective changes to diet and lifestyle.
If you regularly question why you feel tired all the time, you may put it down to long working days or too many late nights. Often, your solution may well be a good night’s sleep and scheduling in some relaxation time. But for many, it’s more complex than that.
There may be no clear link between cause, effect and cure. Instead, the causes can be connected, feeding off each other and exacerbating the initial feelings of tiredness and fatigue. So, understanding the various causes and their relationship is important, as is understanding how to manage fatigue effectively.
In this respect, it’s well worth considering the role that nutrition plays - not only in 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 uncovering the relationship between tiredness and nutrition, and explain how a nutritionist can help.
Causes of tiredness
Many of us feel tired, exhausted, or like we have no energy. There are many factors that can cause fatigue and you may experience many of these throughout your lifetime. Below are a few key causes of tiredness:
Often, prolonged feelings of exhaustion may be the result of deeper medical problems, particularly 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.
Speaking with your GP can help to identify psychological, physical, and lifestyle causes that may be contributing to feelings of tiredness and fatigue.
There are a vast number of medical conditions that can deplete energy and leave you unusually tired. Some of the most well-recognised causes of tiredness include iron deficiency anaemia, sleep apnoea, chronic fatigue syndrome/ME, diabetes and glandular fever, amongst other connected conditions. Other, less recognised causes include an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), food intolerances such as coeliac disease and hypoglycaemia. Tiredness can also be caused by pregnancy (particularly during the first 12 weeks), as well as being a side effect of medicines, herbal remedies, and cancer treatments.
Read more about the link between medical conditions and tiredness.
Weight issues (although not primarily medical in themselves) may also be a cause of tiredness and can lead to medical issues that also cause fatigue. For instance, being underweight or overweight can contribute to tiredness, as the body could be lacking important nutrients that support growth and normal bodily functioning. Because of this, the body has to work harder to perform everyday activities.
The very nature of our lifestyles can lead to feelings of tiredness. 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, our behaviours and the way we choose to live our lives can exacerbate 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
- having too much screentime before bed
- napping during the day
All of these factors have an impact not only on our bodies but on our minds too.
Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are common causes of tiredness. Particularly if you feel anxious or stressed, it’s possible you are struggling to sleep; research from the Mental Health Foundation shows a link between insomnia and low energy levels.
If you’re worried about your mental health, talking can help. Visit Counselling Directory for more help and support.
Big emotional life events such as bereavement, relationship break-ups, and redundancy can also leave us feeling tired, exhausted, or fatigued. 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.
In this video, we chat with nutritional therapist Michaella Mazzon, DipCMN, mBANT, CNHC, Royal Society of Medicine, about using nutrition to boost our energy levels, the importance of balanced blood sugar and how hydration can affect our tiredness levels.
Nutrition and tiredness
We know that tiredness is a complex issue. There may be underlying medical conditions causing feelings of exhaustion or there may be psychological issues causing stress and draining an individual. Alternatively, it may be a person's lifestyle, whether by choice or otherwise, that is generating these feelings.
To complicate it further, it may be a combination of different factors or one factor leading to another that is leaving you feeling continually tired. For this reason, it can be difficult to identify a specific cause and effect on your own. So first of all, it is important to discuss any symptoms of fatigue and low energy that are present for a prolonged period with your GP.
But, whether your fatigue is the result of lifestyle, psychological, or medical causes, it is often beneficial to address the issue from a holistic perspective - and understanding the nutritional impact of diet is essential. Eating a balanced diet could be a defining factor in helping to address tiredness and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Hydration and tiredness
While many of us realise that certain foods can give us an energy boost or leave us feeling more tired, we can forget that hydration is also key. When we don’t replenish our fluid intake, our energy levels can plummet, leaving us feeling fatigued, struggling to focus, light-headed, with a headache, or any other number of common symptoms.
How can a nutritionist help you to combat tiredness?
A balanced diet can address many underlying health issues, but it's important to remember that there is no one nutrient that's responsible for all ill health, and there is no one nutrient that will make us healthy. It really is about our 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, reduce fatigue and boost energy levels. 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 ways you can introduce foods that give you energy into your diet.
What is nutrition for tiredness?
A nutritional plan to combat fatigue will revolve around energy-boosting foods. That’s 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.
Remember: No single food, including those mythical ‘superfoods’, can compensate for unhealthy eating. And there's no evidence that one single food can provide an energy boost. It’s all about balance.
Tiredness can have a big effect on our appetite. Some people find that they are more hungry, or crave the wrong types of foods when experiencing fatigue, whilst others may lose their appetite when tired. To combat this, eating at regular times is important, as this helps to keep your blood sugar levels steady for longer periods, which keeps tiredness at bay.
It would be better to never skip a meal and focus on slow-burning starches such as oats, whole grain bread, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals to provide a slow gradual energy release, as well as a good dose of nutrients and minerals.
What should I eat for extreme tiredness?
There are a number of different dietary changes you can make to help reduce feelings of extreme tiredness. Avoiding processed foods and switching to non-caffeinated drinks can be a great start. Instead, foods and drinks you should incorporate more include:
- fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables
- lean proteins (chicken, turkey, and fish)
- whole grains and complex carbohydrates (peas, beans, brown rice, oats, whole wheat pasta and bread)
- nuts and seeds (ideally raw, unsalted nuts and a good variety of seeds)
- switching to water over coffee, juices, and fizzy drinks
- vitamins and supplements (first consult with your GP and nutritionist)
Eating a good breakfast
Many people don’t think about their body’s dietary needs when rushing around 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’ve 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.
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
- overnight oats or porridge
- sliced hard-boiled eggs in whole wheat pita bread
- whole-grain toast with peanut butter and fruit
Also, 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 lunchtime 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 actually your body’s preferred source of energy. Experts say that the best way to maximise your body’s potential for energy is to eat a mixture of simple and complex carbohydrates.
Slow-burning, complex carbohydrates should make up the majority of the carbs that we eat. These sustain blood sugars and without them, the body loses steam and you become tired. A few examples of complex carbohydrates include starchy vegetables and whole grains such as brown rice, wheat, oats, potatoes and carrots.
Remember, the quick energy boost released by a chocolate bar or other sugary snacks may satisfy us in the short run, but the increased blood sugar levels quickly dip, often resulting in us feeling more tired. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore simple carbohydrates altogether though. Rather than reaching for the sugar, go for carbs such as those found in vegetables, fruit and honey, which can provide a good source of immediate energy.
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.
Do you struggle to reach your daily intake? Read our 10 tips to get more fibre in your diet.
Fat provides the highest concentration of energy of all the nutrients. This calorie density, along with our seemingly unlimited storage capacity for fat, makes fat our largest reserve of energy. However, just like carbohydrates, not all fats are created equal.
Trans-saturated fats, often referred to as ‘bad fats’ are linked to some chronic illnesses, heart disease and some types of cancer. However, the ‘good’ fats (unsaturated) are a source of concentrated energy that can help you prevent feeling tired all of the time.
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.
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:
- Seafood - Fish is typically low in fat and a great source of protein. Salmon, while higher in fat, provides us with heart-healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids.
- Eggs - Medium-sized eggs have around 6g of protein and are easily digestible.
- Milk - Dairy foods are great sources of protein and provide our bones with a dose of calcium.
- Yoghurt - Natural yoghurt and Greek yoghurts are good protein sources and perfect fuel for exercise.
- Soya - Soya protein foods, such as tofu, can help post-workout and are thought to help lower cholesterol. Some soy products can fit in with a healthy diet to provide an extra protein boost.
- Beans and pulses - Cheap, easy and a good source of fibre and iron! Although they do not contain the full complement of amino acids, they can certainly boost the protein content (and health qualities) of a well-balanced diet.
In diets where your body doesn’t get enough fat and carbohydrates to fuel it, protein provides energy.
Water moves food through your intestines, helps regulate your body’s temperature and helps with joint movement. Also, it’s crucial for the production of energy molecules. According to experts, dehydration is one of the main causes of tiredness and a lack of energy. If you’re not well hydrated, instead of supplying you with energy, your body will focus its resources on maintaining your water balance.
To combat tiredness, it’s advised to take a water bottle around with you throughout the day and replace soft drinks with water. Aim to have at least two litres of water a day, and for an extra energy boost, consider adding a slice of fresh lemon.
Also, watch your alcohol intake. Alcohol can not only dehydrate you but also disturb your sleep, leading to tiredness the next day.
Read more about the importance of hydration.
What foods cause fatigue? 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, compared with a diet consisting of fresh fruit and vegetables. Many prepackaged foods contain high levels of sodium and sugar so it’s worth trying to reduce these in your diet.
- Caffeine - It’s well known that caffeine, found in coffee and energy drinks acts as a stimulant and can improve the feelings of alertness, countering the effects of fatigue. However, too much caffeine, particularly in people who aren’t used to it, may cause the adverse effects of irritability and headaches. Cutting back on caffeinated drinks can help stabilise your energy levels to help you feel better. Why not try a natural, caffeine-free energy drink to see if you notice a difference in your energy levels?
- Unhealthy fats - Trans fats that are found in snacks, fried foods, baked goods and margarine. Saturated fats found in cream, meat, lard and butter, and are thought to increase the risk of heart disease. Of course, any of these foods are fine occasionally, but try to limit them from your diet if you’re feeling tired all the time.
- Refined carbohydrates - Refined, sugary carbs add little nutritional value to your diet. Instead, try to choose complex carbohydrates and whole-grain foods to ensure your body gets the nutrients it needs.
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.