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Could my diet be making me tired?

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

Feeling tired? You’re not alone.

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms your GP or local pharmacist gets asked about. If you’re a woman aged 19-50 the stats are even higher, with up to 50% of women in this age group experiencing fatigue or low energy on a regular basis. Most of us known that nutrition plays an important role for energy and vitality with deficiencies in micronutrients such as iron commonly associated with fatigue and low energy.

Before we go any further with this chat, let’s define fatigue so that we are all on the same page. Fatigue is a term used to describe an overall feeling of tiredness or lack of energy. You might also find it hard to motivate yourself to do physical tasks or experience brain fog, have difficulty remembering things or have trouble concentrating. Other symptoms associated with fatigue can include low mood or feeling more emotional than usual.

So why do you feel tired? There are many reasons and certainly if you are experiencing ongoing, unremitting fatigue, I highly recommend you see your General Practitioner for an accurate diagnosis.

Iron is often top of mind for fatigue and especially in women aged 19-50 years. Iron deficiency is very common for women in this age group because most have a regular period and their dietary iron intake may not be enough to meet their needs. The Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for iron for this age group reflects this with a higher daily intake of 18mg. Iron is readily available in many foods including red meat, dark leafy greens, lentils and some dried fruits and so you might wonder why women can't get enough iron from dietary intake alone.

The answer may be in the type of food that is being eaten. It's interesting that many women are increasingly choosing to eat a plant-based diet with many avoiding red meat altogether. There are many health benefits for this that may include a healthier BMI and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, however it can make it harder to get enough iron. Plants contain compounds such as phytates and polyphenols that can block iron uptake and so it is harder to get the amount of iron needed from eating only plant-based foods. On the other hand, animal sources of iron are more easily absorbed and yield higher amounts of iron.

So unfortunately, when you consume less iron but have an increased need (such as a regular period), it can result in a negative iron balance and this starts to impact your iron stores which is identified by measuring a protein involved in your iron storage, called ferritin. When ferritin continues to fall you can progress to iron deficiency anaemia which means you don't have enough iron to transport oxygen around your body for energy and for your brain function. It's common for women to be told their iron is ok despite having low iron stores and reporting fatigue. so although you may not be anaemic, you might be well on the way to it and this is the time to act to increase your iron intake; either from your diet or from supplementation.

What is also interesting is that other nutrients that are involved in energy production and the transport of oxygen around the body, are also sourced predominantly from animal sources. Vitamin B12 and coenzyme Q10 are two important nutrients that your body uses to make energy. Vitamin B12 is also needed to make the red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body and keep your brain functioning. Another vital nutrient is Iodine which is needed for thyroid function. In fact, your thyroid is the master of your metabolism which means it's essential for regulating your energy and impaired thyroid function is associated with fatigue and low energy.

So if you’ve been experiencing ongoing fatigue, have been told that your iron levels ‘are fine' and just can't get to the bottom of it, it might be worth investigating if your diet is providing enough of these nutrients to support your body’s energy production; especially if you eat a mostly plant-based diet.

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