Tired All the Time? These Are Some Expected Reasons

Tend to your cellular powerhouses to improve your daily energy level

The most common complaint my functional medicine colleagues and I hear from our patients is, “I’m always tired, my energy is low, and I can’t seem to pull myself out of this slump.”

Chronic tiredness is ubiquitous today. It can range in severity and have a myriad of underlying causes. Yet when it comes to fatigue, the health of the cellular mitochondria, the “energy factories” in each cell that drive human life, are a common issue. Each cell contains several of these organelles, which function as rechargeable batteries to transform food and oxygen into energy.

Mitochondria are extremely dynamic and respond constantly to changes in our body resulting from food, air, water, exercise, stress, hormone status, inflammation, injury, infection, toxins, and so on. In a best-case scenario, they respond to life’s varying stressors with fusion, joining together to form super-mitochondria that increase energy and resilience.

However, mitochondria are vulnerable to the consequences of industrialized life. Studies show multiple modern factors contribute to mitochondrial fission—the damage and breaking apart of mitochondria.

The result? Tiredness, low motivation, depression, and difficulty recovering from exercise, illness, or other stressors.

Even worse, failing to address poor mitochondrial health increases your risk of:

  • Autoimmune disease
  • Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
  • Cancer
  • Reduced immunity to viruses
  • Hormone deficiency
  • Gut health problems
  • Poor recovery from illness and injury
  • Inefficient stem cell activity

Everyday Factors That Damage Your Mitochondria

Before addressing your chronic tiredness, it’s important to rule out any serious disorders such as anemia, hypothyroidism, diabetes, pulmonary disease, or other pathologies.

Also, in this article I do not address chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomylitis. Though damaged mitochondria play a role, this is a complex neuroimmune disorder beyond the scope of this article. Nor do I address genetic mitochondrial defects, which do not respond well to dietary and lifestyle interventions.

That said, studies point to numerous factors of modern life that damage our mitochondria and sap us of energy:

Sedentary lifestyle: Daily physical activity is a healthy stressor that motivates your mitochondria to develop more robust fusion and function. Have you ever seen those 91-year-olds who ski, garden, and hike? They have kept their mitochondria healthy through an exercise habit. Like muscles, mitochondria need regular workouts to avoid atrophy.

If you’re super-tired, and that sounds impossible, start with whatever physical activity you can manage and gradually increase.

Blood sugar imbalances: Mitochondria get their fuel from the foods we eat. If you regularly consume junk foods, sugars, sweeteners, and highly processed carbohydrates (pasta, bread, white rice, etc.), your mitochondria simply won’t have the substrates they need for efficient energy production.

Also, a sugary, high-carbohydrate diet causes insulin resistance, a stepping-stone to diabetes that robs cells of glucose. This deprives mitochondria of the fuel they need to recharge.

To experience more energy, cut out the sugars and sweeteners and modify your carb intake.

Toxins: We are in an era of unprecedented exposure to toxins and heavy metals, and thousands of studies show that they damage mitochondria and promote a number of diseases, such as diabetes and cancer.

Go as nontoxic as possible with your diet, body products, and cleaning supplies.

Pharmaceutical drugs: Many over-the-counter and prescription drugs have been shown to damage the fragile mitochondria, and the polypharmacy model of taking multiple drugs can overwhelm them.

Investigate whether diet and lifestyle modifications can help you wean off certain pharmaceuticals, such as statins or metformin.

Infections: We all experience bouts of viral or bacterial infections, but some people have chronic infections that begin to damage their mitochondria. Examples include undiagnosed Epstein-Barr virus, Lyme disease, mold toxicity, fungal infections, and bacterial overgrowth in the gastrointestinal tract.

You may need to seek help from a qualified practitioner to test for and treat these infections.

Sleep deprivation: Our culture glorifies busyness, often at the expense of health. Burning the midnight oil to work or binge-watch Netflix can translate to a breakdown of your mitochondria.

If you go to bed on time but struggle with falling or staying asleep, unstable blood sugar is a common culprit. However, you may need qualified help to find the underlying causes of your sleep problems.

Systemic inflammation: The foundation of most modern diseases today is systemic (body-wide) inflammation. The factors I mentioned above promote inflammation, along with:

  • Undiagnosed food intolerances (gluten and dairy are the most common)
  • Diets high in processed foods and low in whole foods, produce, and fiber
  • Low antioxidant status
  • Chemical sensitivities
  • Undiagnosed or unmanaged autoimmune disease
  • Chronic stress
  • Poor gut health

These take a toll on the mitochondria and result in chronic tiredness, pain, depression, brain fog, and other symptoms.

Systemic inflammation can often be resolved through anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle strategies.

Nutrient deficiencies: Poor mitochondrial function is rarely the result of a supplement deficiency and that bottle of CoQ10 is unlikely to solve your problems. However, multiple diet and lifestyle factors that damage mitochondria are typically accompanied by nutritional deficiencies.

Nutrients that support mitochondrial function include B vitamins, vitamin K, and vitamin C. You’re unlikely to see significant improvement from supplements alone, but they can help support your journey of mitochondria repair. Food is your best source of adequate vitamin intake.

Glutathione Supports Mitochondrial Function

A tricky aspect to improving mitochondrial health is that while inflammation damages them, mitochondria themselves produce inflammatory free radicals as part of the energy production cycle.

Free radicals are unstable atoms with unpaired electrons that “steal” electrons from healthy cells. This sets off a chain reaction of damage and degeneration. Think of rusting metal.

In a person in good health, the body’s antioxidant system compensates for this by protecting the cells so the mitochondria can do their job with no collateral damage.

However, if inflammation is already high and antioxidant status is low, this inflammatory byproduct of energy production goes unchecked in a vicious, self-perpetuating inflammatory cycle that damages mitochondria while promoting inflammation.

The solution? Maintaining a healthy antioxidant system is critical to supporting mitochondria and your energy levels, and the most important antioxidant is glutathione.

Glutathione is the body’s “master antioxidant,” and healthy energy production requires that glutathione surrounds the mitochondria. That way, when mitochondria energy production releases free radicals, the glutathione acts as a bodyguard, “taking the bullet” during the free-radical mad grab for electrons. The glutathione then recycles itself and reports back for active duty.

Glutathione deficiency is widespread, as multiple factors of modern life deplete this vital antioxidant: toxins, chronic inflammation, the polypharmacy model of taking multiple medications, diets high in processed foods and low in nutrients, sleep deprivation, and chronic stress.

A healthy antioxidant system also depends on regular physical and neurological activity, a nutrient-dense diet, and good sleep.

When I have a patient with acquired mitochondria dysfunction, I recommend ample doses of high-quality absorbable glutathione, such as oral liposomal glutathione or s-acetyl-glutathione. Glutathione IVs are also available from some practitioners.

Not everyone can tolerate glutathione, so start with a small dose to make sure it agrees with you. For those who don’t tolerate it, I recommend compounds that support glutathione recycling, including N-acetylcysteine, cordyceps, gotu kola, milk thistle, L-glutamine, and alpha-lipoic acid, and selenium.

Nurture Healthy Mitochondria for Lifelong Energy

While regular physical activity and a whole-foods diet high in antioxidants are vital for mitochondrial health, so are other lesser-known factors.

A consistent schedule: For example, mitochondria function best when you stick to a consistent schedule of sleeping, eating, exercising, and other daily habits.

Our sleep-wake cycle, the circadian rhythm, involves a fine-tuned orchestration of various hormones. Recent studies show that mitochondrial function and the production of new mitochondria are highly dependent on a consistent circadian rhythm. This may help explain why people with irregular schedules are more prone to disease.

Sufficient hormones: Hormones significantly impact mitochondria—and vice versa. This includes not only reproductive hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, but also thyroid, adrenal, pancreatic, and growth factor hormones.

For instance, testosterone and progesterone have protective antioxidant effects on mitochondria, while testosterone and thyroid hormone activate mitochondrial energy production. Insulin, on the other hand, devastates mitochondrial function, which helps explain why people with high blood sugar and diabetes are so prone to disease and degeneration.

The body has difficulty synthesizing hormones when mitochondrial function is poor. This may help explain why some women grapple with severe symptoms during perimenopause, such as inflammation, pain, depression, anxiety, memory loss, and the onset of chronic health disorders.

Men, whose testosterone declines more dramatically as they age, also suffer from symptoms.

While hormone replacement therapy may be necessary for some in midlife, it should not be viewed as the mitochondrial cure-all. Instead, the entire spectrum of factors must be addressed.

A healthy gut microbiome: Studies show that mitochondria and gut bacteria communicate with one another. Healthy gut bacteria produce byproducts such as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that play numerous important roles in the body, including the support of efficient mitochondrial function.

On the other hand, byproducts from unhealthy gut bacteria disrupt mitochondrial function. In fact, studies on subjects with inflammatory bowel disease show they have greater mitochondrial injury and damage than controls.

The topic of gut health is a vast one, which I cover in one of my courses and in an upcoming book. However, if my patients can tolerate fiber, I have them support their healthy gut bacteria by consuming at least 25 grams of fiber a day through a very diverse array of produce. The more diverse your plant fiber, the healthier your gut bacteria; explore the produce aisles, particularly in world markets.

People whose gut issues prevent much fiber consumption may find benefit from taking an SCFA supplement such as butyrate.

Making Mitochondrial Support a Lifelong Habit

One factor I haven’t mentioned that impacts mitochondrial health and function is aging, which significantly reduces mitochondrial capacity.

However, like our 91-year-old skier, adapting simple lifestyle changes and habits to support mitochondrial fusion will give you a higher quality of life throughout your years.

The benefit is not only more energy, but also increased resilience to and quicker recovery from viruses, better brain function, improved mood, lowered risk of disease, better hormone function, and more.

Our mitochondria help us stay in homeostasis, or balance, allowing us to experience an even keel of feeling and functioning well.

While good mitochondrial health is not as easy as popping a few supplements, if you’re tired of feeling tired, transitioning to an anti-inflammatory diet, improving your lifestyle, and getting physical exercise will pay you back with interest in energy production.

This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine. 


Epoch Health articles are for informational purposes and are not a substitute for individualized medical advice. Please consult a trusted professional for personal medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment. Have a question? Email us at HealthReporter@epochtimes.nyc

Datis Kharrazian, Ph.D., DHSc, DC, MS, MMSc, FACN, is a Harvard Medical School trained, award-winning clinical research scientist, academic professor, and world-renowned functional medicine healthcare provider. He develops patient and practitioner education and resources in the areas of autoimmune, neurological, and unidentified chronic diseases using non-pharmaceutical applications.
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