It’s pretty common to feel run down and exhausted in the current climate. However, there is a difference between fatigue caused by a few nights of poor sleep and a steady state of fatigue that never seems to improve as the day (or week, or month) progresses.
If your lethargy is chronic and you’re experiencing drowsiness-slash-exhaustion on a daily basis, you could be past the point of normal tiredness and instead have a more serious health condition, known as chronic fatigue, which you’ll need to address by making some tweaks to your lifestyle.
While more research is needed on chronic fatigue as a condition (including the symptoms and the treatment for it), here’s what the science has suggested so far, according to a registered dietitian.
What is Chronic Fatigue?
“Chronic fatigue syndrome is a disorder, also called myalgic encephalomyelitis, in which a person experiences extreme fatigue for six months or more that is not explained by an underlying medical condition,” Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist, Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, owner of ChampagneNutrition and author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep and
How To Eat To Beat Disease Cookbook. The way it differs from regular drowsiness is that it often impairs daily functioning and negatively impacts wellbeing and productivity, so you’re unable to get through the list of tasks on your to-do list and maintain enough energy to socialize or exercise.
“This condition stops people from being able to do their normal activities, so it’s important to see a doctor if this may be something you’re experiencing. And even without that diagnosis, many people are walking around feeling chronically fatigued, where they’re slightly sleep deprived, low in energy, and are just not feeling their best,” says Hultin. Chronic fatigue can remove you from your normal way of living and leave you in a constant state of withdrawal. “It stops people from engaging in their own lives, and they may miss work and social events, and find it hard to complete activities that are mundane and part of their daily lifestyle and routine,” Hultin adds.
There is no true “cure” for chronic fatigue, but there are lifestyle changes and other therapies available that aim to reduce the symptoms of it. “Common treatment plans may include seeing a counselor, addressing dietary deficiencies, getting more movement as tolerated, stress management, and sleep therapies, all of which you can discuss with your doctor or therapist in creating a healing plan that’s the right fit for you,” Hultin says. Again, more robust research is needed on both diagnosing and treating chronic fatigue syndrome.
Chronic Fatigue Symptoms
The primary symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome (in addition to fatigue itself) are “crashing” after activities and experiencing sleep disruptions, such as difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep soundly throughout the night. The fatigue you feel will be extreme, so it’s much different than how you might feel from just being tired after a few nights without sleeping or a week where you’re working late hours. There won’t be a specific cause, such as traveling, completing a race or marathon or finishing a HIIT workout—and it’ll be ongoing, so it won’t resolve itself once you’ve rested and recovered.
“You might also experience ‘crashes’ after doing activities, which can take days or weeks to recover from, and these might be simple things, like going to an event or even the grocery store. Chronic fatigue might also worsen your memory and cognitive functioning, where you might feel lightheaded or dizzy,” Hultin says. This can make you feel as if you’re in a constant state of brain fog.
“Ultimately, if you’re feeling chronically fatigued and aren’t responding to extra rest, the most important thing is to meet with your physician, as being chronically fatigued can be an indicator that you’re under physical or emotional stress, which should be addressed,” Hultin says.
Because the condition is so difficult to properly diagnose and treat in the medical world, treatment usually targets the symptoms of chronic fatigue. You can start by analyzing how your body responds to lifestyle improvements, such as getting more sleep, eating more nutrient-dense foods, or engaging in more movement throughout the day. Diet in particular may play a role in improving chronic fatigue, as the foods we eat can help fuel our bodies and minds and keep us mentally alert and energized. Additionally, some studies have suggested that there is a link between chronic fatigue and inflammation in the body, which means eating anti-inflammatory foods could be an important part of combatting symptoms. Here are the foods Hultin suggests eating more of to help alleviate some of the symptoms of chronic fatigue.
The Best Foods for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Symptoms, According to an RD
1. Whole grains
“The body needs carbohydrates for energy, and eating high-fiber, high-protein whole grains on a regular basis each day helps balance blood sugar and energy levels and provides a rich source of vitamins and minerals,” says Hultin. There are so many delicious options to choose from, from brown rice and oats to amarantha, buckwheat, farro, and quinoa. Enjoy them for breakfast (as overnight oats and oatmeal), snacks (like oat bars and trail mixes), in veggie bowls with tofu or fish, or in stir-fry meals.
2. Beans and Lentils
“Include high fiber beans and lentils in at least one meal per day, as the B-vitamins and iron support red blood cell production and are critical for addressing fatigue,” advises Hultin. Beans and lentils are also packed with protein, which is essential for keeping you energized throughout the day. And because said protein comes from a plant, you’ll also get a good dose of vitamins and minerals that are energizing for your body, including electrolytes like potassium and magnesium.
3. Leafy Greens and Cruciferous Vegetables
Green veggies, including leafy ones (like spinach and kale) and cruciferous veggies (like broccoli and brussels sprouts) have a plethora of vitamins that help fuel the body by supporting good gut health and a strong immune system. “When chronically fatigued, you’re weaker and more susceptible to sickness, so keeping the immune system strong is pivotal,” says Hultin. “Include greens with lunch or dinner daily. Eating them gives you a boost of fiber, anti-inflammatory antioxidants, and vitamin C to improve your gut, heart, and boost your immune system. They’re also rich in fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamins A, E, and K.”
“All nuts are beneficial, but walnuts are a great source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids,” Hultin says. “Omega-3s are known to promote brain health and cognition, and they help lower your risk of brain disease. Walnuts are also rich in fiber, protein, and heart-healthy unsaturated fats, so add them to your breakfast or as a snack at least once per day.” Try adding walnuts to oatmeal, salads, grain bowls, homemade spreads or dips, or chia seed pudding (for a double boost—chia seeds also contain omega-3s and fiber).
“Any type of berry will give you a great boost of vitamin C and unique antioxidants, both which can help those suffering from fatigue. Berries are also high in fiber and are anti-inflammatory,” she says. All berries are going to be energizing, flavorful, and healthy, so enjoy a variety in your diet: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and so on. Toss them into Greek yogurt, smoothies, oatmeal, or on a bed of greens. You can also pair them with protein, like grilled salmon, which also has omega-3s to boot.
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