Inflammation Might Be the Reason You're Always Tired—Here's What to Do About It
Everyone gets tired—this isn't anything new. It may be from physical exertion, working on your feet all day or pushing yourself in a new workout routine. Or it may stem from the mental or emotional exertion from trying to meeting a deadline, focusing intently on a project or new interest, or worrying more than normal. Regardless of the exact cause, all the body usually needs to bounce back and shake the tiredness is a night or two of good sleep.
But what about when a few good nights of sleep don't fix things? Instead of feeling refreshed, you continue to wake up worn out, struggling to focus and to find motivation to complete routine tasks. The best way to describe it is you're "always tired." But the reality is you probably aren't just tired; you're fatigued! And if you can't associate this continued tiredness with intense exertion, then inflammation is likely playing a role in the development of that fatigue.
Unusual or persistent fatigue may be a sign of a serious medical problem. Always contact your health care provider first if you are concerned about your health.
Good Fatigue versus Bad Fatigue
Fatigue is designed to be an adaptive or protective mechanism—at least that's the basis for the fatigue we all experience after continued exertion without adequate rest. This type is known as physiological fatigue, and it essentially forces the body to take a breather, thereby preventing illness and injury that likely would occur without rest. But there's another type of fatigue, known as pathological fatigue, which isn't caused by ongoing exertion.
Pathological fatigue is initiated by an inflammatory immune response to a pathogen or irritant. This triggers the release of cytokines, inflammatory compounds designed to fight off the pathogen. These can interact with the nervous system to cause some fatigue early on. But the bigger issue occurs when existing inflammation (from disease or lifestyle) causes the immune response to continue, leading to an ongoing cytokine secretion. Because of this, fatigue usually increases as inflammation in the body increases.
Inflammation and Fatigue
The development of pathological fatigue is complex and not fully understood—except for the fact that low-grade chronic inflammation plays a key role. Approximately 90% of individuals with a chronic inflammatory condition like an autoimmune disorder, type 2 diabetes or cancer experience this type of fatigue, but it also occurs in seemingly healthy people. In fact, approximately 40% of the healthy population may also experience this inflammatory-driven fatigue.
So could an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle help your body recover from fatigue—or even make you feel a little less tired? Reducing inflammation can have an impact on fatigue since less inflammation means less cytokine secretion. An anti-inflammatory diet likely aids anyone with fatigue or ongoing tiredness to recoup and get back to your normal energy level, maybe even a little faster. For those with inflammatory-related fatigue though, adding an anti-inflammatory eating approach to your treatment plan could potentially be a game-changer.
4 Ways to Reduce Inflammation-Related Fatigue
Here are four things to prioritize when it comes to reducing inflammation related to fatigue.
1. Prioritize Good-Quality Fats.
Polyunsaturated oils and fats, particularly those that contain the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, exert anti-inflammatory effects in the body, but most Americas don't get nearly enough of these fats. Instead, we tend to overconsume omega-6 fatty acids (predominantly found in monounsaturated fats, oils like olive and avocado, and some nuts), and this imbalance in omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is is associated with causing inflammation. This means it's important to find a healthy balance of the two by looking for ways to substitute polyunsaturated fats and add omega-3 sources.
- When cooking, opt for oils with a higher proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids, like flaxseed, walnut, sunflower and corn. Healthier monounsaturated ones like olive oil don't have to be avoided (and shouldn't be). Just make sure to substitute with polyunsaturated sources sometimes to achieve a healthier balance.
- Eat cold-water fish rich in omega-3s, such as salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines and tuna, two to three times per week. If you don't eat fish, consider vegan sources of omega-3s such as walnuts, edamame and canola oil. Additionally, you can talk to your doctor to see if an omega-3 supplement is right for you.
2. Move Daily.
Intense, long-duration exercise can trigger inflammation, particularly if the body is already inflamed. But on the flip side, being sedentary on a regular basis leads to inflammation. This means that finding a healthy balance during the week is important when it comes to reducing inflammation and minimizing side effects like fatigue. Daily movement also helps to maintain circadian rhythms which may also help your sleep.
- Be active while also listening to your body, and adapt your activity plan as needed. Some days this may mean a walk with friends or lifting light weights. Other days you may need to scale back and just look for ways to be active within your normal routine (getting dressed, doing laundry, walking the dog, cooking meals).
- Don't compare your activity to that of others. The goal when you're in a fatigued state is to just get some movement every day. Once you're feeling better, then you can step up your exercise game.
Related: This Is How Often You Should Exercise Each Week, According to the World Health Organization
3. Lay the Groundwork for Better Sleep.
Getting adequate, good-quality sleep each night is even more important when you're fatigued and have inflammation. But existing inflammation can alter your circadian rhythms and sleep cycle, making it difficult to fall or stay asleep. This means that you may need to take extra measures to ensure you get that good-quality sleep. Here are a few things that help.
- Avoid caffeine intake after early to mid-afternoon. Create an evening routine that involves no technology at least 30 minutes before you get in bed.
- Keep a notepad at your bedside to make a worry list before going to sleep if you're prone to waking up with racing thoughts or anxiety. Getting your thoughts on paper can help prevent them from waking you up.
- Try to spend 10 to 15 minutes outside each day. This can help to reestablish the body's circadian rhythms and melatonin production associated with a more normal sleep-wake cycle.
4. Choose Foods with Anti-Inflammatory Nutrients.
Incorporating foods with anti-inflammatory nutrients and compounds daily is one of the most powerful ways to reduce inflammation with your diet. Higher intakes of fruits and vegetables are linked to lower inflammatory markers thanks to antioxidants, phytochemicals and fiber. Consuming adequate intakes of other nutrients like vitamin D and magnesium is also important, as well as incorporating probiotic-rich foods to support gut health. Here are a few ways to do this.
- Eat at least five servings of produce a day and try to eat the rainbow. Aim for at least four of those produce servings to be from vegetables.
- Snacking on a small serving of nuts each day is a great way to get more selenium and magnesium.
- Consume vitamin D-fortified milk or milk beverage. You may also consider talking to a doctor or dietitian to see if a vitamin D supplement is right for you.
- Look for ways to incorporate yogurt with active live cultures, kombucha and fermented foods like miso and tempeh into your diet.
Some fatigue is normal, but too much can be cause for concern. Inflammation can play a role in chronic fatigue, so trying to reduce inflammation through your diet and lifestyle is a great way to help return to healthier energy levels. For more, check out the book Meals That Heal: 100 Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, a cookbook that teaches readers how to use the healing powers of food in quick, family-friendly recipes.