Let’s think for one second about what role food had for thousands of years. You might agree with me that its purpose has always been to provide nutritional support (i.e. energy) to our body and mind. Yet, in the past few decades food and fatigue have become two words too often associated with each other, as if we had essentially twisted the original concept of food itself.
We have become spoiled creatures
Before we entered modern era, food was not as readily available as it is nowadays. Behind every meal there was a considerable amount of work to be done, maybe hunting, farming, harvesting, cooking, etc. The concept of food was intimately connected to people’s life as part of their daily routine. This is how most eating rituals and local recipes have developed over time. Nowadays, food has become ubiquitous, we don’t have to go hunting risking our life or fasting for days before having a proper meal. We don’t even have to eat something we don’t like because we have lots of choices, way too many choices.
The law of attraction in food
In the last few decades, as our days have been increasingly occupied by job, hobbies and various social activities, eating assumed a much less meaningful aspect in our everyday life. The result is the formation of a gap between our lifestyle and the way we include eating into it.
When it comes to eating, most people seem to care mostly about two things: never being hungry and getting immediate reward from food (the pleasure component of food is so relevant to better understanding ourselves that I will dedicate another article to it). We unconsciously tend to target foods that give us immediate reward both in terms of calories (fullness) and pleasure. The problem is that these two factors trigger an important ancestral mechanism in our brain that makes us particularly attracted to foods that are high in fat and/or sugar (calories and sweetness). Guess why? Simply because in the past, finding foods having this kind of nutritional composition could be a lifesaver.
What does all this have to do with fatigue?
Continuously feeding yourself with what used to be lifesaving food unfortunately is not a good idea, because your body is simply not used to it. Just like human brain hasn’t changed much in the past 40.000 years, neither has the gut. We are attracted to lifesaving foods but eating them as if we were in the Garden of Eden has many undesired consequences. One of the most common is fatigue. This term is very broad and doesn’t have a clear medical condition associated to it for the simple reason that various components of diet and lifestyle can be responsible for it and in the worst cases, the underlying cause could be diseases such as diabetes, anemia, autoimmune conditions etc. These are certainly serious diseases that you can investigate further with your physician who will be able to run the right analyses and tell you how to proceed. On the other hand, if you have the impression that what I said up to this point makes you feel like you’ve been living in the Food Garden of Eden or in its surroundings, most likely the solution to your fatigue problem is right under your eyes.
“Don’t eat that apple!”
Consider this: we all take medicines because we want the molecule(s) they contain (i.e. active ingredients) to have specific effects on our body. Food too is made up of hundreds if not thousands of different molecules that enter your body and affect your organism differently depending on their structure, the food they are in and the amount. Every day we consume several pounds of food and all the molecules therein act on the organism providing energy, nourishment, halting or triggering inflammation (see other posts), etc. Guess what? There can also be molecules that induce fatigue, without you knowing it. The most common cause of fatigue is associated to the term food coma. This doesn’t mean that when in food coma you’re about to die but it certainly means that your organism has been injected with a sleep-inducing cocktail of molecules. Let’s delve more into it.
What’s wrong with carbs and sugars?
If you’re looking for an energy boost and decide to eat sugar-rich foods (with high glycemic index), you might end up enjoying an awesome postprandial dip (technical term for siesta), instead. What happens is that sugars induce the pancreas to release insulin. This protein grabs the excess of glucose that is accumulating in the bloodstream as you keep eating and carries it away by storing it into the liver and muscle cells. Without this mechanism, the glucose concentration could increase so much to render glucose itself toxic (that’s why diabetic people have to be very careful to stop this from happening). On the other hand, in order to prevent glucose levels to decrease too much, there are proteins (like glucagon) with the opposite task that work in team with insulin. Yet, depending also on the individual’s metabolism what might occur is that this interplay between the two proteins is not perfect and glucose levels decrease too much inducing the first symptoms of fatigue and sleepiness. In healthy and fit people, though, blood glucose levels are usually quite tightly regulated and this unbalance doesn’t occur easily.
So, what else is there to know? We need to dig deeper to have a complete picture of fatigue.
The human body is full of surprises
Although after-meal sleepiness is still not well-understood, there is convincing evidence suggesting that not only what you eat but also how much you eat matters. You might think that this is quite obvious because the more you eat the more blood is diverted to the digestive system and less to the brain but this is not the case. In fact, blood flow to the brain is highly regulated and stays unaltered throughout and after meals. Yet, what actually causes the digestive system to receive more blood is regulated by the brain, our jack of all trades. But how does the brain know how much food is coming in?
Well, there are receptors around the stomach that communicate with the brain through the so-called vagus nerve. If you’re rushing to eat your meal or if you’re eating a large one (perhaps barely chewing), then the stomach fills up quickly, the brain senses it and switches the parasympathetic system on, that is that part of the nervous system responsible for rest-and-digest and feed-and-breed activities. As a consequence, blood vessels directed to the digestive system dilate and blood flow towards the extremities (legs and arms) decreases. Food coma may begin.
Keep in mind that very fatty foods may take three or four times longer to leave the stomach, thereby increasing the food coma and fatigue duration, accordingly.
Another hidden enemy: the infamous gluten
I‘m sure everyone reading this post has heard of gluten-free diet. For a long time it seemed like it was just a fad but according to the statistics, an increasing number of people try to stay away from wheat and related grains. Is it possible that they are experiencing some benefits that science hasn’t been able to clearly explain yet? Most doctors keep recommending people to eat normally if there is no clear evidence of gluten-intolerance but my question for these doctors would be “What do you all mean by clear evidence?”. The scientific community is aware that gluten-intolerance is a poorly understood condition for which the available tests are not reliable and whose symptoms are very varied and difficult to pinpoint. Without going into details (see next posts), there is an abundance of evidence showing that gluten (a protein) is a psychotropic substance, meaning that it affects brain functions. FYI, this class of molecules also includes caffeine, heroin and LSD (!).
Once gluten reaches the guts, it gets metabolized into a smaller protein, which in turn, gets absorbed into the bloodstream to be then carried all the way inside the brain where it binds to the same receptors as opioids, inducing drowsiness (and addiction…). This mechanism seems to be quite subjective and some people won’t experience much. On the other hand, if you have the feeling that bagels, pasta and other yummy “glutinous” foods give you a sense of fatigue not long after eating, then investigate further. Be the doctor of yourself and be curious to learn about how your body works. At the end of the day, no one knows you better than yourself. It just takes a bit of time and experimentation but it’s certainly worth the effort.
Tips to put an end to fatigue
After this load of information, here we go with a summary of solutions you can easily test to enjoy your meals more and spending the rest of the day with the energy you deserve:
1) Chew longer: chewing turns food into a paste that can travel through the stomach much faster and allows for better nutrient absorption;
2) Embrace slow food: no matter what you are eating, slow down. If you really can’t control your pace, take smaller bites and/or use a smaller fork/spoon. This way you’ll avoid overloading the stomach.
3) During the day eat smaller meals: consequently, eat more frequently. 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 1 pre-dinner snack.
4) Avoid sugary food and drinks: I know you’re tempted but try your best. Insulin and glucagon will thank you.
5) Try to avoid gluten-containing food, especially during the day: if you have regular pasta for dinner and then fall asleep right afterwards, it’s not too big of a deal but keep in mind that the gluten’s opioid-like effects can last for a few days with ups and downs. Find out yourself.
6) Reduce caffeine intake to get better sleep, regularize your sleep/wake cycle and feel more rested.
7) Exercise regularly: anything is fine, power walking, dancing like a crazy monkey, climbing buildings. Just do it. Your metabolism will improve and your energy levels will go up.
Remember that it’s never too late to start a journey of self-discovery.
The best tool you have at your disposal is knowledge.
Use it wisely.
PS please share your thoughts.