Low energy is one of the most common presenting complaints at Invigorate Clinic.
There are a number of factors that can lead to low energy levels including
- An inability to regulate blood sugars
- Low iron status
- Stress and an imbalanced adrenal hormone axis
- Poor thyroid function
Every cell in our body requires energy in the form of ATP. A constant supply of ATP is required to drive chemical reactions and muscular contraction, to transport substances around the body and to allow new healthy cells to be created.
Food contains carbohydrate, protein and fat, all of which can be broken down by digestion to make energy. Carbohydrate is our most efficient energy source because it can be broken down to glucose which is the main fuel used by every cell of the body. However, protein and fat can also be used (although less efficiently) to obtain energy.
Since it is so important that cells have access to energy every second of every day, the body maintains a reservoir of carbohydrate in muscles and in the liver, called glycogen.
When glycogen is depleted (for example through carbohydrate restrictive diets), the body turns to fat stores as an energy source. This reaction is far more complex than the reaction that takes energy from carbohydrate. In fact, this reaction actually requires energy (in the form of ATP) as well as Magnesium. Medium-chain fatty acids, like those in coconut oil, are an exception. The body can actually use these almost as efficiently as carbohydrate for energy.Protein can also be converted via a series of reactions into ATP when there is insufficient carbohydrate or fat available.
Most cells can use fatty acids or protein for energy with the exception of brain cells, which rely on ketone bodies for energy when carbohydrate is restricted. When a lot of protein or fat is being utilized as a primary energy source, excessive amounts of ketone bodies build up in the blood stream, leading to what is called ketosis. Ketosis leads to loss of calcium from the bones but also to feelings of tiredness and listlessness.
One of the most common causes of low energy is iron-deficiency anemia. Low iron results in a reduction in the amount of oxygen that can be transported to cells of the body. Iron is also important for the enzymes that bring oxygen into the cells.
Iron-deficiency anemia can be caused by:
- Too little iron in the diet
- Loss of iron through the digestive system or through heavy menstrual periods etc.
- Impaired absorption of iron
There are two forms of iron available in food.
- “Haem” iron: found in animal products e.g red meat, liver. This form is better absorbed than:
- “Non-Haem” iron: found in plant sources
Thus, vegans and vegetarians tend to be a high-risk group for iron-deficiency anemia. (Click here for good vegetarian sources of iron)
Hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid) and chronic diarrhea can result in impaired absorption of iron in the digestive tract. Eating wheat bran and soya protein (which contain phytates), swiss chard and spinach (which contains oxylates) and drinking tea (which contains tannins) and soft drinks can also make it difficult for the body to absorb iron.
Remember though that supplementing with iron is not wise unless you have had your iron status checked by your doctor. Too much iron can damage cells causing the build up of too many free radicals which can then deplete the body’s reserves of antioxidants.
At Invigorate Clinic, we perform a comprehensive blood workup for most clients we suspect may have low iron status including Haemoglobin, Ferritin, Vitamin B12 and Folic Acid. Similarly we also like to assess stomach acid using a non-invasive test.
Low iron status is just one reason why your energy levels may be low. In our next article in this series, we will discuss the importance of blood sugar regulation in maintaining steady energy levels throughout the day.