If you suffer from any of the following symptoms, then it is possible that that you have a problem making sufficient energy to meet the demands of your body and these are some of the symptoms reported by people who are struggling with burnout and chronic fatigue.
· impaired memory
· struggle to concentrate
· brain fog
· exhaustion or fatigue
· unexplained muscle pain
· non-refreshing sleep or sleep disruption
· racing mind
· digestive problems like bloating or IBS
I believe the key to resolving the problems of burnout and fatigue include understanding and learning how to support the pathways in our body for energy production. The world of chronic fatigue or post-viral fatigue has not had sufficient attention in the past and this is changing with the focus of Long Covid-19 where sufferers often report similar symptoms.
Many of those suffering with what is known as Long Covid-19 or Long Haul Covid-19 are displaying some or all of these symptoms which can be very debilitating for the sufferer, often affecting their ability to work and complete normal daily life activities. But it is good that chronic fatigue generally is getting attention as it is increasing the amount of research being done which will lead to new scientific discoveries and solutions to help people not just to cope with it but to get back their energy again. Having been there myself both with burnout, and previously a form of post-viral fatigue, I understand how difficult it can be to cope with, especially if you still have responsibilities such as a young family or elderly relatives to care for too.
To help you understand what is going on in your body when you experience fatigue or other symptoms relating to energy such as brain fog, I want to start by explaining how we make our energy. I believe it is important to understand at least some of this process, because it will help you to realise what is potentially going on in your body, why it can be difficult to resolve and why you need to layer up different strategies to get the best results.
Our energy is made at the cell level, in every one of our cells, through a process known as bioenergetics or cellular energy production. When we feel tired or fatigued it is a sign of our cellular energy process being under pressure/stress and then the demand for energy outstrips the supply of energy. In today’s world we often place too high a demand on our energy supplies and eventually we deplete the battery and then when some additional stress is added to our lives such as an infection or some extra mental stress, poor nutrition, sedentary lifestyle, relationship or money problems, or chemical toxins, our energy system can no longer cope. These added stressors (and yes they are all a type of stressors for the body) act like a trigger to shut down our energy production to help defend us against the stressor. In the functional medicine world this is known at the cellular level as the cell danger response (I will talk about this more in another blog).
So how do we make our energy? What happens in the cellular energy production process? Well, all our energy is created inside the individual cells in our body and inside each cell we have organelles (like mini organs) called mitochondria and it is these mitochondria that make our energy. For this reason they are sometimes called our ‘powerhouses’. Some cells have few mitochondria and some have thousands, depending on what their function is. Cells that require a lot of energy like muscle cells, heart cells and brain cells have a lot and cells that don’t require as much energy such as skin cells have fewer.
The mitochondria make our energy in a fascinatingly complicated process using the nutrients that are circulated from our blood stream (after being digested and absorbed from our food) and oxygen from our blood coming from our lungs. They work extremely quickly and are very sensitive to changes in their environment that they can be compared to canaries in the coal mine.
One analogy that I love comes from Lee Know in his book Mitochondria and the future of Medicine. In it he explains how in Star Wars the Midi-Chlorians that lived symbiotically in the cells of all living things and in Jedi they were found in much higher numbers with Luke Skywalker having the most of all. I love this explanation which was based on what George Lucas had learned about mitochondria when he was researching energy forces for Star Wars.
We know from research that it is true that we can increase the numbers of mitochondria we have in our cells as well as increase how efficiently they work to produce energy. So how can we get our mitochondria to work at their best?
The first thing is to reduce the amount of stress we are under, stress can be mental, emotional, physical or environmental. When we exposure our selves to stress we change the biochemical signalling in our bodies. Our nervous system kicks in sending stress hormones into our blood stream, in some people it can lead to imbalances in their adrenal and thyroid systems which can have an effect on blood pressure and metabolism in the long run affecting digestion and energy production. Our mitochondria are very sensitive to changes so when they can tell things are not right in the body they will down regulate energy production to help us to rest and recover. This is known as sickness behaviours which you will recognise if you have an infection and get a temperature and you just want to lie down and sleep. This is the body instructing you to stop. The same happens when the body senses that you are overdoing it and need to take time to recover.
The second area to focus on is to make sure you are getting enough sleep. Sleep is so important for health it should be seen as the number one health intervention. Most people need around 8 hours sleep to function optimally and ideally it needs to be restful, unbroken sleep although sometimes in life especially if you have young children this can be difficult. My advice if you cannot get 8 hours of unbroken sleep is to take a nap in the early afternoon for around 20 minutes.
Next you need to think about what you eat. Feeding yourself nourishing food to support your mitochondria to produce energy is important. Firstly we need to provide the basic macronutrients for energy which are mainly carbohydrate and fats (that is not to say that protein is not important in many other ways and is also used to a minor degree for energy production). I am not going into the detail today of how these macronutrients are broken down into the molecules that are used to create energy (that will be another blog at some point!) but you want to be eating carbohydrates and fats that are found in whole foods and not processed foods. Ideal carbohydrates are complex ones which includes things like sweet potatoes, brown rice, apples, berries, quinoa, broccoli and lots of other fruits and vegetables. Ideal fats are avocados, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, oily fish like salmon and mackerel, eggs, cheese and olive oil.
In addition there are some key nutrients that mitochondria need to work well and produce lots of energy, these include B vitamins, vitamin C, minerals such as iron, sulphur, magnesium, copper, zinc and manganese as well as CoQ10 and Alpha Lipoic Acid. Most of these you should be able to get from food sources but it you work with a nutritional therapist and find that you are deficient you may want to consider supplementing to support your energy needs in the short term.
So now that I have given you some strategies to help support your energy production I want to say KEEP GOING. This is so important because fixing your energy problems is not going to happen overnight. It probably took quite a long period of time when your body coping with lots of stressors before it eventually crashed. The last stressor, such as an infection, was probably the tipping point and if you look further back you might realise that perhaps you didn’t feel 100% before it.
Before you crashed were you really sleeping well, eating well and managing your stress levels well? If the answer is no to any of these then your energy problems probably started sooner than you think. Unfortunately for most of us, we simply do not notice the symptoms until it is too late.
If you have suffered with burnout or chronic fatigue your mitochondria store away this information for future use, they remember what happened and what response to take to get you to stop and take notice. Research shows that people who have suffered from burnout and/or chronic fatigue are likely to relapse and are more sensitive to stress in the future. When you start to get back your energy you need to keep using your new knowledge to maintain your energy. Your lifestyle needs to adapt so that these changes are sustainable for you in the long term.