Fatigue can be an early indicator of many serious illnesses, but in many cases, the solution is simple. If you are in good health and still feel constantly tired, a few easy lifestyle changes may be all it takes to feel your best. In this three-part series, we explore how dehydration, vitamin deficiencies and constipation contribute to fatigue.
By: Whitney Willett / Medical Editor
Thinking back on our childhood, many of us remember doing things with the promise that they would help us grow up big and strong. If you were a kid in the 1970s or 80s, I bet you remember the beloved Flintstone chewable vitamins. They smelled like candy, were shaped like your favorite characters and didn’t taste like any of the other horrible things in the medicine cabinet. Taking vitamins gave us the confidence to protest eating our vegetables. And even though most of the vitamin was caked up in our molars and never digested, it was a staple that mom insisted on.
All these years later, we know that those vitamins were really a novelty. While vitamins are very important to our health, the source is also important. Vitamin deficiency anemias are a very real thing and can play a huge role in contributing to fatigue. If you are in generally good health and still find yourself dragging and never feeling fully rested, a vitamin deficiency may be the culprit.
Vitamins and minerals play a key role in our blood health, bone health, immune strength, nervous system function, muscle strength, vitality of our hair/skin/nails and our body’s ability to repair itself. Our body cannot work efficiently if we have a deficiency in certain vital nutrients, which can be a big contributor to your energy level and stamina. The most common symptoms of vitamin deficiency are fatigue, dizziness, muscle weakness and metal confusion.
The causes of most vitamin deficiencies are our lifestyles. Some deficiencies are congenital and exist from birth, but fortunately, most of us have deficiencies we can correct with lifestyle modifications. The most common causes of vitamin deficiencies are: lack of a balanced diet, drinking soda, smoking, and taking certain medications. Eating a diet that is lacking certain food groups (especially dairy, red meat, fish, and leafy green vegetables) is almost certain to leave you with a vitamin deficiency. Soda contributes to vitamin deficiency in two ways: it depletes vitamins and minerals from places like your bones, and creates an environment in your digestive system where vitamins are unable to be absorbed efficiently. Smoking impairs the absorption and synthesis of vitamin C. Finally, NSAID pain relievers and most prescription acid reflex medications also inhibit the body’s ability to absorb vitamins because of how they affect the environment in the digestive track. (Side note: Vitamin deficiencies also result after having gall bladder removal surgery or gastric bypass surgery.)
Common vitamin and mineral deficiencies that lead to chronic, long-lasting fatigue are also the ones that have the most impact on how our bodies function, and thus are the most crucial. They include folate (B-9), B-12, vitamin C, vitamin D, iron, potassium and magnesium.
A deficiency in folate causes fatigue and reduces the number of red blood cells in your blood stream, and may lead to poor growth and unhealthy hair, skin and nails. Foods that are high in folate include beans, lentils, leafy greens and fruits.
B-12 deficiency can be either congenital (known as pernicious anemia) or acquired through lack of intake or absorption. If you are born with pernicious anemia, your body lacks intrinsic factor proteins that help the small intestine absorb B-12 and you need to be monitored by a medical professional. For the rest, it is usually caused by a diet lacking in fish, chicken, milk and yogurt. B-12 plays a vital role in the production of DNA, which is needed to replace damaged DNA as we age or heal from inflammatory conditions. B-12 is also key in the production of neurotransmitters, which our nervous system uses to tell our bodies how to operate properly. Signs of B-12 deficiency include fatigue, lack of balance, muscle weakness and memory loss.
Vitamin C is often referred to as an antioxidant and our bodies need it for numerous functions – most notably for its role in boosting our immune system. Vitamin C also helps defend the body against free radicals, aids in healing, and makes many other important contributions to overall well-being. A mild to moderate vitamin C deficiency causes fatigue, depression and mild connective tissue disorders. A severe deficiency can lead to serious conditions such as scurvy. Foods rich in vitamin C include strawberries, pineapple, oranges, broccoli, cauliflower and kale.
Vitamin D is essential for our bone health as well as other important functions. Prolonged periods of vitamin D deficiency have been proven to lead to osteoporosis, especially in women. Consuming milk and yogurt, as well as a safe amount of sunlight will help avoid this deficiency.
Iron anemia is the most commonly known deficiency. Iron helps keep our blood rich in oxygen. Low iron levels cause fatigue, pale skin and thinning hair. Eating beets, oysters, beans, lentils and spinach regularly help keep your iron at optimal levels.
Potassium plays a key role in making sure our heart, nerves and muscles are strong and work properly. Low potassium causes muscles weakness, constipation, numbness and tingling sensations and abnormal heart rhythms. Bananas, whole grains, milk, beans and peas are all high in potassium.
Another important contributor to bone health is magnesium, which plays a role in energy production and aids in efficient elimination. Deficiency in magnesium is marked by fatigue, loss of appetite, weakness, muscle cramps, nausea and vomiting. Magnesium-rich foods include almonds, cashews, peanuts, spinach, black beans and soy beans.
If you suspect a vitamin deficiency may be to blame for your fatigue, your doctor can perform simple blood tests to check your vitamin levels. If you know you are missing certain food groups from your diet, you can try increasing those foods and noting their affect on your energy level. Eating our vitamins is always the best way to ensure we are getting the nutrients our body needs.
Dr. Jessica Perhealth, a chiropractor at Strive Physical Medicine in Ocala, believes nutrition is a key to good health and says she counsels patients to get their vitamins from food whenever possible.
“Eating a diet of colorful vegetables and fruits is an important way of getting vital nutrients so that our bodies can function they way they’re intended to,” she says.
If consuming certain food groups isn’t an option or is something you are unwilling to do, you can use supplements. BUYER BEWARE: Not all supplements are beneficial. Just like those novelty Flintstone vitamins, many vitamins you find in your local drugstores and big-box retailers are made from synthetic chemicals that our body cannot use, which is the biggest reason over-the-counter vitamins are not FDA approved. Look for whole food vitamins, which you can usually find in health food stores. They are a bit more expensive, but in the case of vitamin supplements, you get what you pay for. The body can better absorb and use vitamins that come from food.