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12 Chronic Fatigue Root Causes + Helpful Ways to Overcome It

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Chronic fatigue is not a diagnosis. There is always a root cause to feeling chronically tired, and it’s usually an underlying imbalance. Learn about the 12 common causes of chronic fatigue and useful tips to beat it once and for all.

First thing first: if you’ve felt plagued by the symptoms of chronic fatigue, just know that it is not a diagnosis. It’s not a way of life or something that you will live with forever. Although chronic fatigue is arguably the most common health condition in America, it’s usually a sign of an underlying imbalance. The key is understanding why your body feels chronically tired, from head-to-toe, all day long. Learn how to get to the root causes of chronic fatigue.

SYMPTOMS OF CHRONIC FATIGUE

In my functional practice, the number one client complaint I hear is debilitating low energy. I know I’m not the only practitioner who hears this on a daily basis. In fact, fatigue affects more than 1 million Americans. Before I discovered functional medicine, I was personally plagued by constant lethargy too.

signs and symptoms of chronic fatigue

You might be dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome if you experience the following symptoms on a daily basis:

  • Lethargy
  • Brain fog and impaired memory 
  • Constant or extreme fatigue 
  • Fatigue that doesn’t improve with rest or sleep 
  • Depression
  • Muscle or joint weakness and pain 
  • Exhaustion and body aches after physician activity
  • Irritability
  • Consistent sore throat
  • Low blood pressure
  • Inability to adapt to temperature changes
  • Insomnia
  • Swollen lymph nodes 

Can you check off at least 4 symptoms on the list above? If so, there is a strong possibility chronic fatigue syndrome might be to blame. While chronic fatigue symptoms can make day-to-day life feel unbearable, there is hope. It is possible to heal from chronic fatigue. To cure chronic fatigue once-and-for-all, you must start by identifying and addressing any imbalances in your body.

UNDERSTANDING THE MAIN CAUSES OF CHRONIC FATIGUE 
Common underlying causes of fatigue
NUTRIENT DEFICIENCIES 

Nutrient deficiencies are arguably the #1 cause of chronic fatigue. Even the “perfect” diet (if there is such a thing) fails to provide everything we need. It would be different if we weren’t living in the environment we are today. However, it’s imperative we take action on the things we can control. ⠀⠀⠀

Reasons nutrients are depleted: 

  • Food has been genetically altered with hybridization techniques and processed factory-made foods have no nutrients
  • We are living in a time with depleted soil and industrial farming
  • Our increased chronic stress robs us from nutrients
  • Our environment is toxic
  • We lack adequate sunlight
  • Food travels way too far to make its way to us

For these reasons, it makes it nearly impossible to get all the nutrients we need through food alone. Evidence continues to show that we cannot get away from the need of nutritional dietary supplements. I highly encourage you to test and not guess! It’s important to work with a practitioner to figure out your unique body chemistry, deficiencies, and nutritional needs. I always run a functional medicine micronutrient analysis on new clients. After that, I recommend they repeat the analysis every 12-18 months to monitor levels. 

What to do:  In addition to testing, a great head start would be my foundational 5. When someone asks me what the bare minimum is, I typically recommend:

  • High quality activated complete multivitamin
  • Molecularly distilled, heavy metal tested pure omega-3 fish oil⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
  • Vitamin D3 in cholecalciferol form (not D2 which most docs prescribe)⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
  • Potent absorbable magnesium in a combination of forms⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
  • High quality hypoallergenic amino acid based protein powder without gums and fillers

As well as my foundational 5, low B-12, iron, and vitamin D are the most common contributors to low energy. It’s also important to note in order to reap the benefits of more energy, the purity and quality of supplement brands matter. Unfortunately, many people are taking inactive or poor quality vitamins that aren’t doing anything for them. 

POOR DIET 

Aside from the obvious poor diet such as consuming excess sugar, refined carbohydrates, fast food, and processed fake foods with artificial ingredients, I often find that clients are fatigued when they aren’t eating a proper macronutrient balance. Eating the right amount of protein, fat, and carbs for your body is essential for energy.

The importance of a balanced diet full of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fat

What to do: The foods you eat are the fuel and medicine for your body! Everyone is different in the macronutrient ratios they require. A good general recommendation would be getting 35% of your carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables, 25% from protein coming from high quality clean meats and fish, and 40% healthy fats coming from avocados, olive oil, and grass-fed meats.

LEAKY GUT 

Gut problems are one of the most underlooked root causes of fatigue. For instance, when leaky gut or intestinal permeability occurs, the intestinal wall is damaged. This allows undigested food particles, nutrients, bacteria, pathogens, and other toxic substances to leak into the bloodstream. This process not only causes inflammation throughout the body, but also leads to compromised immune function resulting in fatigue. 

Where to start: Healing the gut is a comprehensive process. If not done correctly, it can result in years of spinning on the hamster wheel cycle with no real improvements. I encourage you to refrain from attempting to figure things out on your own. I like to not only test my clients for intestinal permeability to see how severe it is, but also test for gut infections, food sensitivities, and food intolerances. These can all leave you feeling drained and exhausted. If you suspect you have leaky gut or suffer with gut problems, my signature advanced coaching program is a 7 step system that can help you identify your triggers through testing. It’s imperative to heal your gut the right way without cutting any corners. 

TOXICITY 

There are a number of elements that are toxic to the human body and can interfere with fatigue—such as mercury, lead, cadmium, aluminum, and arsenic. These metals can be toxic to organ systems and may disrupt the balance of essential nutrients. In addition to metal toxicity, our food supply, environment, water, household products and cosmetics also increase our toxic load.

What to do: You can test for metal toxicity and start removing toxic heavy metals from the body. For example, I use TRS with my clients for this and I also suggest seasonal resets to help the body eliminate toxin accumulation over time. This can significantly improve and sustain energy levels. Additionally, looking at where toxins might be coming from is very important. Making small changes to reduce toxic load can also make a huge impact on your health and energy. I suggest switching to non-toxic cleaning products, filtering your air and water, and changing up your beauty routine. For a full list of my favorite non-toxic products and must-haves to get you started, check out my resources page!  

GENETIC MUTATIONS 

Your genes load the gun but our environment pulls the trigger. In other words, your genes aren’t your destiny! You might have certain genetic mutations known as SNPs that reduce your ability to detox and eliminate toxins. In addition, certain genes such as MTHFR make it difficult to convert inactive vitamins in the body. These vitamins are essential for glutathione production (our master energy and detoxification antioxidant).

What to test: Testing for MTHFR (C677T and A1928C variants) is something I highly recommend. This would help you understand more about how efficient you are at eliminating toxins regularly. If you have an MTHFR SNP, there are many lifestyle, dietary, and supplement modifications you can begin. These modifications will help you open up detox pathways and support methylation. This is often a game changer for my clients struggling with fatigue. Ask your practitioner to test your genes. Always work with someone who can help you with the key steps and modifications to support your genetics. One of my favorite books, Dirty Genes by Dr. Ben Lynch, includes a fantastic summary with practical tips on how to reverse the  effects your genetics have on your health. 

VIRAL INFECTIONS 

Low-grade viral infections, such as Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and human herpes viruses have been linked to chronic fatigue. Even if viruses are dormant in the body, they can still cause problems. Dormant viruses often activate due to stress and other triggers.

Supplement Support: You can attack viruses naturally with potent antiviral herbs and vitamins. Some amazing examples include astragalus, olive leaf, bee propolis, zinc, vitamin C, melissa Officinalis, and L-lysine. A functional medicine practitioner can help determine a customized approach based on your specific low-grade viral infections.

HPA-AXIS DYSFUNCTION 

HPA-Axis dysfunction stands for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and is otherwise referred to as adrenal insufficiency or adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue occurs when your stress hormone, cortisol, is out of balance (too low or high). This can leave you feeling extremely fatigued, cranky, exhausted in the morning and afternoon, and can disrupt sleep cycles. 

What to do: This is another comprehensive problem that requires more than a simple tweak or fix. For most of my clients, I don’t look at adrenals or hormones until we’re well into the gut healing process. This is because it’s very difficult to balance hormones and other imbalances until you correct the microbiome.

Once the gut healing process is underway, I recommend a DUTCH test (Dried Urine Test for Comprehensive Hormones). This looks deeper at your saliva and urine cortisol and hormone patterns. It also provides the best approach for healing the adrenals. Approaches often includes adaptogenic herbs such as maca, ashwagandha, rhodiola, and holy basil during specific times of the day. I also like to ramp up physical activity and mindfulness practices in those with adrenal fatigue as well. Lastly, diet plays a huge role in helping to rebalance the adrenal glands.

INSULIN RESISTANCE 

When the body is resistant to insulin, glucose is blocked from getting into your cells and producing ATP. ATP = ENERGY! This is often the case for metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. These conditions affect how the body metabolizes and processes sugars. Unfortunately, many practitioners wait until their patients have full blown diabetes before initiating treatment. If insulin resistance and pre-diabetes is detected in an early state, the body is very responsive to dietary and lifestyle modifications. 

Where to start: The best treatment for insulin resistance is to make changes to the quality of the foods you eat. Focus on consuming fruits, vegetables, meats, healthy fats, and potent antioxidant powders. Work with a practitioner who can test and monitor your insulin levels, fasting blood glucose (FBG), Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), Comprehensive metabolic panel, (CMP), CRP (C-Reactive Protein), and homocysteine levels. I also recommend natural therapies and blood sugar balancers such as chromium, alpha lipoic acid, and cinnamon.

INFLAMMATION 

Inflammation = fatigue! The majority of health conditions pair with chronic inflammation. In fact, when you reduce inflammation, energy dramatically increases. It really is that simple! Inflammation slows everything down and weakens your body’s immune system, ability to handle stress, and brain function. This often leads to feeling sluggish and experiencing more brain fog. 

What to do: Start with testing C-reactive protein (CRP), intestinal permeability, gut infections (with a DNA stool analysis), and food sensitivities/intolerances to locate the severity and source of inflammation. I suggest starting an anti-inflammatory diet. Remove your own unique food intolerances and sensitivities. This helps reduce inflammation, remove gut infections. Heal the gut with anti-inflammatory herbs, spices, teas, and amino acids to soothe inflammation along with GI tract and modulate the immune system. I also suggest you find the right exercise routine to help reduce inflammation. 

THYROID AND HORMONE IMBALANCES 

Every cell relies on thyroid hormones for energy and most thyroid conditions often go undiagnosed for years. In fact, 20 million Americans suffer from thyroid imbalances such as hashimotos and hypothyroidism. The majority of sufferers are completely unaware of it. If you suspect your thyroid is the reason for your fatigue, the first step is to ask your practitioner for a full thyroid panel. TSH is not enough to detect thyroid conversion dysfunctions, thyroid resistance, or an autoimmune attack on the thyroid due to hashimotos. Since every scenario needs to be treated differently, it is helpful to dive deeper into labs. 

Labwork and tests for thyroid imbalances and chronic fatigue

Labs to test: Free T3 (FT3), Free T4 (FT4), Reverse T3 (RT3), Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), Thyroid peroxidase antibody (TPOAb), thyroglobulin antibody (TgAb)

MEDICATIONS 

Have you ever noticed that the back of a pharmaceutical drug label lists common side effects that are worse than the issue you’re treating? Every drug has side effects. However, most people are completely unaware that their symptoms, especially fatigue, are a result of taking medications. 

What to do: Taking medications is a non-negotiable for some individuals. We have to honor the fact that modern medicine is extremely beneficial in some cases. However, the problem is that modern society typically opts for a quick fix to health problems rather than putting in the work. Dietary and lifestyle modifications are powerful and can prevent and even correct common health issues.

Our tendency to resort to medication as a band-aid results in complications down the road and an even longer list of symptoms. If you’re taking medications, read the back of the label and see if fatigue is one of the side effects. Consider talking to your doctor about other alternatives. Lastly, seek out the guidance of a functional practitioner who can help you make appropriate diet and lifestyle modifications. 

LACK OF SLEEP

This might sound obvious, but most people are not sleeping properly and nearly enough. Most individuals are staying up too late and waking up early due to work and family obligations. Not getting adequate REM and deep restorative sleep leads to fatigue. 

Where to start: Begin improving sleep hygiene first before anything else. If sleep is still a problem, looking at adrenal fatigue, hormones, cortisol patterns, and nutrient deficiencies may be helpful. Natural support such as CBD oil, magnesium, and herbal teas such as kava and chamomile may also improve sleep quality. 

Once these underlying issues above are addressed, chronic fatigue symptoms should improve, if not disappear all together. If you’re ready to claim victory over chronic fatigue, I encourage you to implement the checklist below, starting today.

CHECKLIST: TOP 10 WAYS TO OVERCOME CHRONIC FATIGUE 

Chronic fatigue is not a diagnosis, nor is it a life-sentence. It is manageable, and even reversible. Here’s how you can start overcoming chronic fatigue today:

Woman who has overcome chronic fatigue feeling energized and vibrant
1. Stress Less

Stress is the number one thief of energy and health. Most of us are simply doing too much and burning the candle at both ends. Adopting effective stress management techniques is one of my favorite places to start. It’s often the most effective solution for fatigue! Try beginning and ending your day with a combination of yoga, meditation, prayer, journaling, or deep breathing as an example. 

Next Level Tip: Check out my resources page for a list of my favorites stress management tools. These include, yoga, prayer, and deep breathing apps that I highly recommend and personally use. 

2. Heal Your Gut

“Health starts in the gut,” said Hippocrates, the father of medicine. Although stated many, many years ago, he sure was right. The gut houses most of your immune system, which makes optimal gut health a priority. By healing and sealing your gut and identifying and removing any gut infections, you can kiss chronic fatigue good-bye!

Next Level Tip: Remove gut infections, test and remove food intolerances and sensitivities, balance your microbiome, and consume healing foods such as bone broth and enough prebiotic and probiotic foods. My Gut Health Starter Kit outlines the best foods to nourish and support your gut. It also includes 3 daily habits you can start that will significantly improve your microbiome. If you feel your gut health is a major cause of chronic fatigue and are looking to dig deeper, you might be a great fit for my advanced coaching or Microbiome Makeover program. Both include a 7-step process that helps men and women heal their gut and reverse autoimmunity. 

3. Improve Your Immune System

An overactive or underactive immune system can be detrimental to health and symptoms of chronic fatigue. Supporting your immune system through diet and lifestyle is non-negotiable!

Next Level Tip: Test for low-grade viruses and infections such as lyme disease that are widely misdiagnosed. Support the immune system with healing foods, herbs, and supplements. Great options include astragalus, Vitamin C, zinc, vitamin D, resveratrol, glutathione, and cat’s claw. 

4. Eat More Protein

Protein is essential for building muscle/tissues and providing the body with energy. Specifically, Branch-chain amino acids (BCAA’s) lucine, isoleucine and valine help. These promote a restful night sleep, resulting in less fatigue the next day. High quality protein powders and animal products contain these essential amino acids. 

Next Level Tip:  Aim to include a source of protein with each meal or snack.  Ideally, I suggest high quality meat or seafood. Most people should get 1g of protein per pound of body weight. As an example, if you weigh 100lbs, you should be aiming for 50g of protein per day. This protein coming from high quality meats, fish, and plant-based foods. Along with that, consider speaking with your functional practitioner to see if an additional BCAA supplementation is right for you. 

5. Correct Hormonal Imbalances

Imbalanced hormones can leave you feeling less than optimal. If you’re experiencing chronic fatigue, it’s time to look at your hormone levels, including thyroid and adrenal function. 

Next level Tip: Consider comprehensive thyroid testing and a DUTCH test. These tests look deeper at your adrenals, cortisol patterns, and sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone levels. 

6. Improve Sleep Hygiene

It might sound obvious, but ensuring adequate sleep is essential in combating chronic fatigue. Improve your sleep hygiene by sticking to a consistent sleep-wake schedule, sleeping in a cool, dark room, and avoiding blue light 2+ hours before bed.

Next Level Tips: Track your REM sleep and notice how lifestyle and dietary patterns might be affecting your sleep routine. I love my Oura ring, which helps me determine how certain modifications improve my sleep on a daily basis. I also love sipping on high quality caffeine-free herbal teas before bed. Teas with natural L-theanine allow for a restful nights sleep without making me feel groggy in the morning.

7. Boost Your Diet

Consuming a nutrient-rich diet is foundational. However, it’s important to identify and eliminate any food sensitivities. In addition, I recommend adopting an anti-inflammatory diet, filled with whole, natural foods.

Next Level Tip: Focus on eating a high quality, clean, nutrient dense diet. Bright colors and variety are key. Add superfood powders into your routine such as acai, beetroot, and moringa powder. I personally love and recommend beet root powder in smoothies. It increases Nitric oxide levels that promote vasodilation, and thus increases circulation and blood flow that ultimately increases energy levels naturally. As an added bonus, beetroot is fantastic for improving the cells that make up the gut lining. 

8. Supplement Where You Lack

Although receiving nutrients from food is ideal, it’s not always realistic. Incorporating high quality supplements into your whole food diet can help correct any nutrient deficiencies. It’s important to work with a practitioner, who can perform a vitamin and mineral analysis. This will help you determine where you are deficient and how to replenish your stores through diet and supplements

Next Level Tip: Test don’t guess! I suggest requesting micronutrient testing. Always work with a practitioner who can optimize your nutrient status while making sure you have adequate B-12, folate, iron, and vitamin D.

9. Establish Routines

Your body wants to feel safe. When it doesn’t, health can suffer. To help your body feel safe, establishing and prioritizing daily routines is critical. Consider creating routines for waking up, working out, eating meals, getting ready for bed, etc. 

Next Level Tip: Make less decisions each day and prevent metal fatigue and burnout. Routines can help with this! Set out your clothes for the next day, plan your meals, and set boundaries. Prioritize your rest time and create and stick to consistent meal times and breaks throughout the day. 

10. Adopt a Detox Diet

Molds, toxins, metals, and pesticides accumulate over time and can make you feel fatigued, both physically and mentally. It’s important that you are eliminating daily and consuming foods that naturally promote detoxification. 

Next Level Tip: Including more foods that promote detoxification is a simple and effective step for beating chronic fatigue. Include detox-boosting foods, like cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts) and herbs (garlic, cilantro, basil, parsley).

MAIN TAKEAWAY

You can start implementing these steps today to combat chronic fatigue. However, working with a functional practitioner is the best way to help you claim your life back. With a practitioner, you can learn about your specific imbalances and hone in on the most important dietary, lifestyle, and supplement modifications for you!

Take it from someone who has been here before. I was told I had “chronic fatigue” for too many years. It wasn’t until discovering the root cause of my fatigue that I actually got my life and energy back! If this is speaking to you, please don’t settle for just getting by. You were meant to thrive. I would love to chat about how a personalized functional medicine approach can help improve your fatigue and exhaustion. You can apply here for a FREE discovery call and consultation. We can chat over the phone or through video conferencing from anywhere in the world! 

How integrative and functional medicine cures chronic fatigue
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"When it comes to balancing our body, healing the gut, reversing autoimmunity, and achieving optimal health—we are a lot like a car that won’t run right. In order to fix the problem once and for all instead of relying on jumper cables, we must get underneath the hood, run the diagnostics, and replace the battery so that it runs good as new."

-Nikki Yelton, RD

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