Can stress lead to chronic fatigue?

It now seems to be an accepted part of modern life that we feel stressed, often on a regular or long term basis. The majority of people I see in my practice will tell me that they feel their lives are stressful, but how does stress make itself known? Do you feel tired or sick, or does your stress show through headaches or lack of appetite?


Common signs of stress

Stress can be expressed in many ways, though some of the common signs include:

  • feeling anxious and edgy
  • tired all the time or "tired but wired"
  • low mood
  • hormonal issues
  • insomnia
  • migraines
  • brain fog
  • getting lots of colds and viruses
  • IBS symptoms

Not everyone will recognise initially that stress could potentially be an underlying cause of these issues but once they do, we can get to work using nutritional and lifestyle measures to improve their situation.

Stress: A natural response

Our nervous system and adrenal glands are programmed to get ready for ‘fight or flight’ when we experience stress. Our ancestors needed this response to ensure survival and would literally need to fight the tiger or run away! The body’s response to stress is designed to be short term but our modern-day stresses are more likely to be chronic and ongoing, such as feeling anxious about work, worrying about the kids, sitting in a traffic jam every day etc and even pressures stemming from social media.

A hair trigger response to stressors, which could be physical, emotional or environmental, leads to the body feeling under constant threat, eventually inhibiting our parasympathetic or calming response. Negative or anxious thoughts exacerbate the issue, leading eventually to the possibility of mental or physical exhaustion.

The tipping point

Generally, if strategies for calming the brain and nervous system can be put in place at the stage of feeling stressed and ‘strung out’, then burnout can potentially be averted. However, if this doesn’t happen then the adrenal and nervous system dysregulation can become a significant issue, sometimes leading to a virus resulting from lowered immunity.

A virus, rather than chronic stress, is sometimes mistaken for the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome when actually it is usually just the final straw.

How to prevent stress tipping over into chronic fatigue

This will vary, depending on the individual but dietary measures are fundamental, along with specific supplements and possibly herbs. An adrenal stress profile to measure cortisol levels and/or a thyroid test may be useful, alongside addressing emotional health and calming the nervous system through mindfulness, yoga etc.

It is thought there may be a certain personality type who is more likely to develop chronic fatigue syndrome and who will generally find it more challenging to manage stress (at least until they have developed an understanding). These are often ‘A’ types, high achieving perfectionists who are usually highly sensitive. Recognising the pros and cons of these traits can be vital to recovery and to understanding and handling stress better in future.

So, often I see someone pushing themselves too hard, overriding the signs from their body telling them to slow down, but if help from a nutritional therapist specialising in this area can be sought in time, then tipping over into chronic fatigue can certainly be prevented and, going forward, strategies for managing stress can be successfully implemented.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, W7 2DR
Written by Vanessa May, BSc Nutritional Medicine, ILM Wellbeing Coaching, BANT, CNHC
London, W7 2DR

Vanessa May is a BANT registered Nutritional Therapist with twelve years experience. She specialises in stress and fatigue related conditions such Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and has undertaken additional training in this area. Vanessa is also an ILM Accredited Wellbeing Coach.
She is based in Ealing, West London and also holds consultations on Skype.

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