Deep, long-standing fatigue problems are significantly underrecognized in our busy world. We can owe it, in part, to the continuous push of external expectations and internal pull of our personal drives. Pressing the accelerator year-round, season after season, however, comes with its consequences.
We call this phenomenon hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysfunction. HPA-axis dysregulation (for short) is well-recognized in the medical literature and linked with many health problems including obesity1 and major depression2.
What is HPA dysfunction?
HPA-axis dysregulation is the body’s elegant, if not inconvenient, response to stress.
A more accurate way of understanding fatigue is through the very intelligent and fine-tuned HPA system. Its role is to strategically advise the adrenal stress response to slow down. The ongoing push of modern life causes some bodies to perceive chronic stress, setting off a hormonal reaction. Instructions from the intelligent HPA axis' negative feedback system then allows the body to make better use of a limited energy capacity.
HPA-axis dysregulation can be triggered by acute stress, a series of traumas, illness, and/or infection. Having a high-achieving personality with the drive to continually do our very best can also eventually come at the cost of HPA-axis dysregulation.
Signs of HPA-axis dysregulation:
There are many different signs of HPA-axis dysregulation. Overall, it’s a state of reduced resilience and energy that gets in the way of normal everyday functioning.
Some of the signs include:
- Feeling unrested on waking
- Low resilience to stress
- Brain fog
- Low mood
- Intolerance to cold
- Susceptible to infections
- Always feeling like you’re "coming down" with something
- Digestive problems
- Low blood sugar
- Low blood pressure
- Dizziness when standing too quickly
- Cravings for sugar and stimulants such as caffeine
Certainly, if you’re out of your depth with a few (or all) of these symptoms, you should seek out the help of an integrative practitioner who can help to identify and treat the underlying root of the issues. Through the journey of recovery, it’s often the things we do every day that make the most meaningful difference. Here are a few things you can do now if you suspect your HPA axis is out of whack:
1. Rest more.
Rest and restorative time, in all their wonderful, energizing forms, will be your best friends. If you’ve been pushing beyond capacity for a long time, HPA-axis dysregulation can be viewed as your body’s reflex to make you slow down. Recovering from chronic energy depletion takes an investment into rest time.
Prioritize getting as much good-quality sleep as possible. In the evenings, turn the lights out early and limit artificial light exposure to promote natural melatonin production and encourage a long, restful deep sleep.
2. Get some morning sun.
Natural light exposure is key for regulating our natural sleep-wake cycle. To promote better energy levels over the day, expose your eyes to natural sunlight first thing in the morning. Natural light exposure3 during the day is linked to greater melatonin production in the evenings needed for more restful sleep. By stimulating vitamin D production in the skin, sun exposure also has a role in regulating various other hormone functions that are key for energy levels.
3. Exercise the right amount.
Certainly, exercise is essential for general health; however, if you have fatigue, there is a fine balance between enough and too much. To protect yourself from blowing off too much precious energy, cap exercise sessions to roughly a maximum of 45 minutes. Challenging workouts should also be balanced with gentle activities such as walking, yoga, or stretching. Don't forget to take rest days, too.
4. Eat warming foods.
Raw and cold salads can become some of the most difficult foods to digest when recovering from fatigue. Aim to include warming, nutrient-dense, cooked foods that are easy on the digestive system. Swap salads for roasted vegetables or soups, or accompany cold meals with warm tea.
Choosing warm food or drink over something ice-cold is a simple technique for inserting thermodynamic energy into your system at zero energy cost. This practice aligns with Eastern philosophies of health, as well. In individuals with a cold, energy-depleted constitution, eating and drinking warming foods helps to build the energy systems of the body.
5. Add nutrient-dense foods to your diet.
Unprocessed whole foods are nature's superfoods. Focus on eating nutrient-dense foods by choosing plenty of vegetables of all different colors and textures. Aim to include a source of protein and healthy fat in each meal to provide long-lasting energy without blood sugar fluctuations. A nutrient-dense diet may include some of the following: raw cacao, nut butters, organic organ meats (including liver), dark meat sitting close to the bone, mineral salts, and sea vegetables.
You may also like to add a pinch of salt if you’re prone to low blood pressure, dizziness, or cravings for stimulants such as caffeine.
Resting more and eating good-quality food can seem so basic, but for meaningful, long-lasting results, we need to return to basics. Supplements, herbs, and other complementary therapies need a foundation to work upon. Starting by working on the foundation daily, creates the space for change and healing.
If you want to take it a step further, here are doctor-recommended supplements to take for fatigue.
Sylvia North, R.D., is a registered dietitian and integrative nutritionist from New Zealand. She has a bachelor's degree in nutrition and physiology and a M.S. in nutrition and dietetics. North's approach builds on a core foundation of using real food and real-life strategies while being sure to work out an individual approach to food and lifestyle for her clients. She specializes in addressing digestive problems and food intolerances, hormonal problems, weight-loss resistance, and poor energy levels.