Fatigue is very common these days and on the increase. It affects mental and physical health as alertness and motivation is lowered, leading to the potential for reduced performance at work or studies, as well as emotional consequences. Shift workers, students who study late at night, insomniacs and those just staying up late to watch TV, browse the web or to socialise are often losing out on valuable sleep that is needed to keep them at the top of their game and in good health.
As a rule, far more of the patients who walk through a typical health practitioner's door seem to comment that they often feel tired and have a general lack of energy than mention any other condition. Much of this tiredness can be accounted for when you examine the predominantly inactive, yet constantly demanding, lifestyles many people lead today. It's important that this sort of tiredness be distinguished from the more pathological fatigue, a condition that is less easily remedied than by simply getting to bed earlier or "slowing down". And this is different again from the debilitating weariness suffered by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome patients.
Some of the common factors involved in the development of fatigue can include deficiencies in nutrients such as iron and vitamin B12, Co-enzyme Q10 and magnesium, or even an inadequate intake of either protein or carbohydrate. A balanced diet really is essential to obtain a good array of micro and macronutrients. Hormonal deficiencies are also able to reduce an individual's energy levels, with a sluggish thyroid gland, a pair of overworked adrenal glands or an insufficient production of testosterone all able to induce fatigue. Both chronic and acute infections, especially of the viral kind, are also well known to take the wind out of your sails - remember how tired you felt the last time you got the flu?
But what do you do if you are eating well, getting to bed early, not working too hard, not stressed, and sticking to a good exercise routine, and yet you're still exhausted? What happens when all of the obvious and even many of the less obvious indications have been ruled out and you are still left with a leg-dragging lack of energy?
The key word here is "energy". We could all do with a bit more of it as we go about the daily business of living, but what exactly is it, and from where do we get this seemingly intangible and often elusive spark of life?
The answers are contained within every cell of the body in a collection of many tiny factories called mitochondria. Mitochondria are minute kidney shaped structures that float within the cells, and are known as the body's powerhouses due to their role as energy producers. If our mitochondria stopped working we would quite simply stop living… quickly. And if these crucial cell structures even slow down in their business of converting our body fat, stored glucose and the food we eat into the energy currency in which the body trades, then the result is fatigue. Along with the fatigue, comes a general under-functioning of the various organs, systems and tissues throughout the body, often resulting in disease.
Mitochondria appear in numbers that can vary considerably, depending upon the particular role and the energy requirements of that type of cell. For example, heart muscle cells contain many thousands of mitochondria, while other, less active types of cells may only need a dozen mitochondria to meet their energy needs.
So what is it that goes wrong with these little power plants, how can we prevent it and more importantly for the already weary folk, can it be fixed?
Our mitochondrial levels start to decline from our mid twenties on and, as a result, the remaining ones expand in an attempt to make up for the body's diminishing level of energy production. Unfortunately, this compensatory attempt is usually inadequate , and thus, we slow down with age. This is known as the mitochondrial theory of ageing.
On the brighter side, it has been shown that we can influence the quantity and activity of our mitochondria. One easy way of doing this is by increasing our level and frequency of exercise, giving the body the "more energy required" message. The body responds with more efficient mitochondria, as well as stimulating the development of some extra ones to help us keep up this new-found pace. This is a part of how we get fitter - our oxygen utilisation gets better.
Oxygen burning can be a part of the problem, too. Mitochondria burn up to 90% of the body's oxygen in the process needed to produce the energy bonds which are stored in molecules known as ATP. In the process, the high level of oxidation necessary to generate such bonds also, by necessity, generates large amounts of highly reactive and potentially destructive, free radicals. If these are not mopped up quickly, they can cause damage to the vulnerable membranes and DNA components of the mitochondria. This causes a drop in (you guessed it) energy production and the result is fatigue.
Many athletes have found themselves running out of energy rapidly when their stamina used to be capable of sustaining them for much longer in the past. This is as a result of the high level of oxidising free radical molecules generated by high intensity or long duration activity. Other people also suffer similar drops in energy due to toxin exposure, infections or simply having an increased tendency to cell damage through having inadequate levels of the body's crucial natural antioxidant defense mechanisms. These and many other factors can affect your mitochondria's ability to produce energy for you, day in and day out.
Mitochondrial restoration can play a big part in the effective treatment of many conditions that appear to have much deeper implications than mere fatigue. But for those who are just tired, it may help you, too.
So, if you have been unsuccessfully trying to get your morning kick-start from caffeine, and you know there must be more to your malaise, perhaps some mitochondrial support is the answer.
Good Health, Jeremy Hill.