Is Your Gut Making You Tired? Here’s How to Tell (and How to Fix It)
An unhappy, unhealthy gut can cause fatigue. Look for these key signs to determine if your exhaustion is coming from your gut – and we’re sharing tips that can help.
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Worn out, weary and ready for a nap by noon? Something may be brewing in your belly. Compromised gut health and changes within the microbiome – the community of organisms that live in the intestines – can drain your energy and promote lethargy. Research points to measurable differences in the microbial makeup of peppy, energetic folks and their always-exhausted counterparts. And studies link chronic fatigue with impaired intestinal function and higher numbers of destructive bacteria.
Gut balance affects overall energy in several key ways. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with sleep and mood, is produced in the intestines. So, microbiome disruptions can directly impact restful slumber, plus your next-day energy and enthusiasm. Research suggests gut bacteria may also interact with the nervous system, directly influencing your mental stamina, focus and concentration. And an abundance of detrimental microorganisms escalates inflammation, leaving you exhausted all the time.
Indigestion, bloating and cramps are sure clues all is not well in the world of your intestines. But gut disturbances – especially those that can affect your energy levels and ability to sleep – aren’t always so obvious/ Plus, sneaky lifestyle habits can trigger subtle shifts in microbial makeup and belly health that fuel fatigue, even if you’re not gassy and bloated.
Look for the following five signs that gut imbalances may be draining your energy.
1. You worship at the altar of bacon
If meat is your mainstay, know this: A diet high in animal products impacts gut health and depletes energy. Red meat and processed meats (like bacon, salami, sausage and hot dogs) encourage the proliferation of detrimental bacteria and reduce friendly varieties. Additionally, saturated fat disrupts composition and function of the microbiome.
A plant-heavy diet has the opposite effect, blunting the growth of destructive bacteria and enhancing strains that shield the lining of the intestines. Research shows vegetables, beans, nuts, fruits and whole grains boost numbers of gut-protective flora.
2. On any given day, you’re 90 percent caffeine
Moderate amounts of caffeine won’t hurt your gut, and some studies do suggest coffee promotes microbial diversity. But a steady drip of caffeine will eventually leave you drained. Large doses of coffee impair digestion, decrease nutrient and water availability throughout the intestines, and disrupt your internal ecosystem. Additionally, research shows too much caffeine stimulates bacteria that provoke gut disturbances, including inflammatory bowel diseases.
The worst kind of caffeine? A caffeine-and-sugar combo. Caffeinated sodas sweetened with sugar exacerbate the negative effects within your gut, encouraging unfriendly bacteria. Diet sodas may be even worse; artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose are shown to alter the composition and function of the microbiome and can trigger pathogenic changes in beneficial bacteria and damage intestines.
3. Your motto is work hard, play hard
If you’re a fast-moving, late-night party animal, your gut – and energy levels – will suffer. A frantic lifestyle fosters stress, which is known to hamper diversity, lessen friendly bacteria and amplify potentially harmful varieties. Too little shut-eye compromises your gut health and diminishes your stamina; studies show sleep deprivation increases numbers of destructive bacteria. Plus, drugs – including cocaine, opiates and nicotine – devastate the microbiome, increasing opportunistic strains. Even moderate amounts of alcohol promote intestinal permeability and alter microbiome composition.
Instead, drink with great restraint, and swap tequila shots for red wine. Small portions of red wine appear to nourish beneficial bacteria and support belly balance.
4. Drive-through burgers and microwaved pizza are your go-to dinner
Packaged, processed, fast foods that are high in fat, sugar and sodium and low in fiber encourage the growth of opportunistic strains that disrupt your microbiome – and this can fuel fatigue. In studies, people who ate more processed foods like French fries, mayonnaise and soft drinks had greater numbers of destructive bacteria known to damage the mucosal barrier of the intestines. High-fat diets speed the proliferation of harmful bacteria that injure intestinal walls. And the same goes for sodium-rich diets, which are shown to wreak havoc on microbial composition, impair gut function.
5. You’re obsessively, rabidly, fanatically clean
A little dirt is good for your gut! Studies show exposure to environmental microbes increases bacterial diversity and benefits the belly. On the other hand, antibacterial detergents and cleaners demolish friendly organisms – and new research suggests household disinfectants can prompt changes to microbiota composition, disturbing intestinal health. This can ultimately deflate your energy.
Toxic chemicals (like polyfluoroalkyl substances, phthalates and synthetic fragrances) found in cleaning products also impair gut function. Steer clear of antibacterial sprays, soaps, washes and wipes, and use plant-based alternatives scented only with pure essential oils.
How to reboot your gut and supercharge your stamina
Good news: If your gut is the root cause of your fatigue and low energy levels, it’s totally fixable. With tweaks to your daily habits and diet, you can restore balance to your microbiome and foster beneficial bacteria to give yourself more energy in natural ways.
If your gut is struggling, try these six science-backed fixes to nourish your microbiome, mend intestines and make ongoing lethargy a distant memory.
1. Fermented foods
They contain a vast variety of beneficial bacteria – more than you could ever hope to find in any supplement – and fermented or cultured foods enhance protective microbes while also promoting gut health. Some of the best options include unsweetened yogurt or kefir, kombucha, kimchi, miso and naturally fermented (not preserved in vinegar) pickles, vegetables and sauerkraut.
2. Plug gut leaks
Increased intestinal permeability, also called leaky gut, is linked with chronic fatigue. Supplements have been shown to strengthen the junctions between cells lining the intestines, repair soft tissues and reduce permeability. Try taking L-glutamine, berberine, zinc, quercetin and deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) root.
3. Eat (or drink) more bones
Broth made from animal bones, cartilage and connective tissue is high in glutamine, glycine, arginine and other nutrients that may dampen inflammation, protect against leaky gut, heal intestinal walls and make your belly better. Or, you can fortify smoothies with collagen powder; research suggests it repairs damage and defends against intestinal permeability.
4. Feed your gut “good” bacteria
Sunchokes, asparagus, garlic, onions, leeks and legumes are rich in prebiotics – a type of fiber that feeds good-for-you bacteria, improves the microbiome and supports gut health. But isolated forms in concentrated doses, like inulin or FOS (fructooligosaccharides) added to probiotic supplements, can prompt gas, bloating, cramps and digestive distress; whole food sources are safer.
5. Extinguish gut inflammation
Low-grade, chronic inflammation damages intestinal walls, disrupts gut flora and further fuels fatigue. To tame the flames, studies show supplements like curcumin, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, boswellia and pycnogenol may soothe inflammation and lessen symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases.
6. Scrutinize your supplements
Probiotics are fragile and easily destroyed by heat, storage conditions and time – so your supplement may be barely viable. And some research suggests packaged probiotics are ineffective, even counterproductive or detrimental. Instead, get your probiotics mainly from food and choose high-quality supplements with at least 1 billion CFUs and a wide range of bacteria, including Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and/or Saccharomyces boulardii – well-studied strains with proven benefits.
For more fatigue-fighting, gut-healing ideas, keep reading:
- Heal Your Gut, Heal Your Mind
- Another Reason to Eat More Guac? Better Gut Health
- The Gut-Health Nutrient You Don’t Know About (But Should)
Featured recipe: Charred Cabbage & Bok Choy Slaw with Kimchi Dressing