Imagine going to bed feeling tired and waking up just as tired every day.
Sleep isn’t refreshing for you, and a blanket of fog and fatigue clouds your concentration and focus. Nothing seems to rejuvenate you, including coffee, so-called energy drinks, or a nice long vacation. It feels like your body’s low battery icon is constantly blinking. Welcome to life with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also called myalgic encephalitis or, more recently, systemic exertional intolerance disease. CFS affects about two million North Americans. The condition leaves people continually exhausted in a way that is unrelieved by rest and is immune to stimulants.
Trying to understand the causes behind this complete lack of stamina may have you wondering, just what gives us energy, anyway?
Humans are energetic beings by nature. A healthy person produces the equivalent of 1,200 watts of energy per day. Power is generated in almost every cell by tiny powerhouses called mitochondria. You can think of mitochondria as minuscule digestive systems within each cell. These generators transform energy from the food we eat into the cellular energy that drives us, called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
A typical human cell contains roughly 2,500 mitochondria. An active cell, such as in the ever-beating heart or never-resting brain, can have upwards of 100,000 mitochondria, which can take up one-quarter of precious cellular real estate. The average person contains a mind-boggling 10 quadrillion of these microscopic energy-producing units. To help you relate, a quadrillion is 1,000 billion; yes, that’s 15 zeros!
Since we cannot store ATP energy, the body must constantly produce it. If the quality, quantity, or efficiency of mitochondria is not optimal, energy production will suffer. While researchers do not understand the causes of CFS, problems with the body’s energy production mechanisms must contribute to the condition. Indeed, studies have shown an important relationship between inadequate mitochondrial structure and function, and chronic fatigue.
Two factors for mitochondrial health within our control are exercise and nutrition.
Two factors for mitochondrial health within our control are exercise and nutrition. Admittedly, regular exercise can be a challenge for people with “exertional intolerance disease,” but it stimulates the production of new mitochondria. In the right amounts, exercise should help charge your batteries. Clinical trials have reported encouraging results for CFS sufferers who stick with exercise.
Poor nutrition or a nutrient shortage can affect energy levels. However, specific nutrients work directly within the mitochondria and are integral to energy production. For example, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) plays a key role in moving electrons along the mitochondrial conveyer belt towards ATP formation.
Low levels of CoQ10 are consistently associated with fatigue in CFS sufferers, and studies show that those with the lowest levels suffer the most.
Acetyl L-carnitine, an amino acid that drives fatty acids into the mitochondria for fat burning, can be lower in CFS patients.
THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD
Cellular energy production creates rogue electrons, also known as free radicals. Picture a car with black smoke coming out of the tailpipe; having inefficient mitochondria is like driving a car with an untuned engine – you get a lot of fumes, but less horsepower. People with CFS have significantly higher levels of free radicals. Key cellular antioxidants that fight free radicals, such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase, are low in people with CFS, engendering a vicious cycle as free radicals can further damage mitochondria. Another essential antioxidant for mitochondrial support is CoQ10. The body produces it naturally, but levels decrease as we age.
Ensuring optimal intake of antioxidants is wise for anyone looking to protect their biological batteries. This can be accomplished by enjoying colourful veggies and fruits, and various herbs and spices; committing to daily exercise; and supplementing with crucial cellular nutrients that offer built-in protection mechanisms to buffer oxidative stress and support energy levels. Minimizing excess sugar intake also helps reduce mitochondrial workload.
Managing chronic fatigue and revving up your energy levels as you get older is an ongoing journey that often requires an individualized approach. However, you won’t regret supporting the body’s energy production systems and laying a firm foundation for optimizing your well-being.