Can stress and anxiety cause fatigue?
When it comes to fatigue, most people are more likely to examine their sleep patterns than their stress levels which could explain why the psychological side of fatigue gets so overlooked. It’s easier for us to blame our feelings of exhaustion on something more concrete – a poor night’s sleep, low iron levels, menopause etc. – but, while these are noticeable triggers, how you’re feeling can often explain why your energy levels are slumping.
This can be seen in a study by the University of Leipzig, examining the determinants of fatigue and stress. Here, an analysis of 2,483 participants revealed that fatigue was strongly linked to higher stress levels1, but the question I want to look at is why? Well, to answer this, we first have to look at the other pre-existing symptoms of stress that could be contributing to your sudden energy lag.
- Poor sleep: Poor sleep might be the most obvious cause of fatigue but it’s also a leading side effect of stress and anxiety. When you experience stress, it can upset your natural sleep cycle by promoting the secretion of cortisol, a steroid hormone that enhances your alertness and makes you feel more awake. When cortisol is circulating in your bloodstream, it impacts your production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, thus making it more difficult for you to fall, and remain, asleep
- Sedentary behaviour: If you’re feeling uptight, anxious or stressed, the chances are that your normal routine will be affected. Instead of going to the gym or socialising with friends, you might me more likely to keep to yourself, preferring your couch and television set to getting your blood pumping at an aerobics class. This can be problematic as the longer you are inactive, the more your energy levels will suffer!
- Muscle tension: Do you ever find yourself tensing your muscles whenever you feel irritated, anxious or worried? Over time, this type of tension can actually cause muscle aches and pains which, as well as making us less likely to stay active, also drains our energy levels
- Sluggish digestion: When you experience stress your body will prioritise important organs, such as your lungs, muscles and heart. As a result, other areas of your body will inevitably slow down and your digestion is one of these areas. This means that you might experience a nasty bout of constipation or diarrhoea, but it also means that your food won’t get broken down as efficiently. This can be problematic as the nutrients you need to support healthy energy levels – iron, magnesium, vitamin D and your B vitamins – won’t be getting absorbed properly.
So, as you can see, stress and anxiety can indirectly impact your energy levels in a number of ways, either by altering your behaviour or how your body functions as a whole. What often gets overlooked though, is the physical toil that experiencing a stress reaction can have on your overall body.
What happens to our body when we experience stress?
No matter the source, whether it’s a bad day at work or an encounter with a predatory animal, your body is hardwired to respond to any form of stress in the exact same way – by prioritising your short-term survival over your long-term survival. This starts with your brain stimulating your adrenal glands to produce steroid hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Together, these work to dilate your vessels, increase your blood pressure and encourage your liver to take any stored sugar (glycogen) and release it into your bloodstream as glucose so your body can better utilise it as a fuel source.
This is all well and good if you’re about to engage in either ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ but the downside is that several key areas of your body, such as your digestive system, reproductive system and immune system, often take a backseat and slow down as a result. As I mentioned earlier, this sudden onset of sluggishness can impact your energy levels but for now, it might be more pertinent to examine how your adrenal glands cope under this increased demand.
What are your adrenal glands?
Your adrenal glands are located just above your kidneys and are responsible for producing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This means that they come under quite a bit of pressure when you experience stress as they are expected to keep up with your body’s increasing demands for these two hormones. If stress is chronic then the situation can become even direr – eventually, your exhausted adrenal glands will struggle to keep up with the demand and your production of cortisol and adrenaline will inevitably dip causing your energy levels to plunge too. This is sometimes known as ‘adrenal fatigue’ and, if you want to learn more about its impact not just on your energy levels, but also on your health and wellbeing in general, I suggest you try reading my blog series, ‘Love your adrenals’.
How can I relieve fatigue?
If you feel as though the fatigue you’re experiencing could be related to your stress levels, then this at least gives you some idea about what you can do to fix the problem. Stress and anxiety can be difficult issues to tackle and although addressing the source of your emotional distress is arguably the first step, sometimes there is no easy answer or solution, particularly when it comes to personal issues such as family or relationships. In these instances, it might be easier to work on changing how you respond to stress and your outlook, rather than trying to eliminate the source of problem entirely.
So, how do you go about changing your approach or reaction to stress? Well, let’s start with the basics. If you’re feeling under pressure, exhausted and fed up of worrying then the worst thing you can do is bottle these feelings up. You might think there’s no point talking about it; nobody will able to help and all you’ll do is worry the people you care about. This kind of reaction will only lead to further problems down the line though – even if the person you confide in can’t help your situation directly, at least they can offer you some emotional support and give you a chance to vent your feelings aloud.
Secondly, really have a think about what you’re eating and drinking. Food can often be a source of comfort when we’re feeling down or emotionally upset and this is doubly true when fatigue enters the picture as well. Binging on sugary, fatty foods might make you feel better for a little while but in the long run these types of foods can drain your energy levels and leave you feeling even worse for wear. Thankfully, there are plenty of foods out there that can do the opposite – that is boost not only your mood, but your energy levels too!
Just as we can indulge in all the wrong foods when we’re feeling upset though, the same can happen when it comes to what we’re drinking too. If you’re feeling tired, then caffeinated drinks like tea or coffee are going to be a priority for you; however, these types of beverages often do more harm than good, blocking your absorption of key energy-boosting nutrients like magnesium and even acting as mild diuretics. Instead, if your energy levels and mood are low, you really want to concentrate on drinking plenty of plain water – not only will this keep you nicely hydrated, it can also help to tackle symptoms like poor concentration and keep your digestive system ticking over nicely too!
If plain water really isn’t for you, you could try infusing your water with some fruit. We do also offer a Balance Mineral Drink which is specifically formulated to help fight fatigue, containing several important electrolytes, such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, vitamin D and zinc which, together, can help to keep your body hydrated whilst giving your energy levels a nice little boost!
Once you’ve got your diet sorted out, try to work on increasing your activity levels. Remember, sedentary behaviour will only exacerbate any problems with your mood and fatigue; besides, exercise can do wonders to improve your stress levels as it encourages the release of happy hormones, such as endorphins! Aim to get at least 20-30 minutes of low-impact exercise in a day – this could be anything from a brisk walk to a relaxing yoga class!
If you really feel as though you need an extra helping handle to tackle your stress symptoms, it might be a nice idea to try a gentle stress remedy like our AvenaCalm tincture. Prepared from extracts of the oat flower herb, this formula is naturally rich in B vitamins and can help to support your nervous system, making you feel calmer in the face of pressure and enabling you to cope better with any niggling worries or concerns.