by Dr. Bill Rawls
Feeling energized when you’re awake should be a normal state. But fatigue is one of the most common complaints I hear from people, and it can range from being a mild inconvenience to downright debilitating. Is it possible to break the constant cycle of feeling drained?
In short, yes. To feel energized on a daily basis, you need two key things:
- The cells of your body must have plenty of energy.
- The functions of all the cells in your body must be coordinated.
Once you understand why these two factors are so crucial to your vitality, the solutions to overcoming fatigue become clear and compelling. Keep in mind there’s no quick fix — addressing the underlying causes of cellular fatigue and disorganization takes a little time and effort — but getting your energy back long-term is well worth it. Here’s what you need to know.
Cellular Fatigue, Defined
Our cells are what make us tick, and the human body is composed of trillions of them. It’s akin to having trillions of microscopic motors humming along and making things happen. If you feel energized, it’s because your cells have adequate energy, and they’re all working together in harmony.
Cells derive their energy from mitochondria, microscopic, football-shaped power generators located inside every cell in the body. A single cell contains anywhere from 100 to 1000 mitochondria, depending on their energy needs. For instance, brain cells work nonstop and thus need more energy than any other part of the body. Other organs that require a substantial amount of energy include the heart, kidneys, and liver.
I tend to think of mitochondria like a battery: Overusing them runs the battery down faster, leaving your energy levels low. You depend on downtime, especially adequate sleep, to recharge your mitochondria.
For the body to work as a unit, all of its cells must communicate with one another. This requires an elaborate network of nerves, hormones, and other messaging agents. If communications in the body are disrupted, cellular functions aren’t coordinated, and energy plummets.
For people struggling with chronic Lyme disease, one of the biggest factors draining mitochondrial batteries and disrupting communications are the microbes associated with Lyme, as well as coinfections and/or reactivated viruses. Other primary stress factors that leave your energy levels dragging include eating an inflammatory diet that’s high in carbohydrates; exposure to environmental toxins that build up in your system; poor sleep; and prolonged episodes of stress.
I call these energy stealers “System Disruptors,” and once you start addressing them, you’ll feel your energy come flowing back.
3 Ways to Boost Energy on a Cellular Level
Although you might be tempted to reach for a caffeinated beverage for a quick pick-me-up, it’s a short-term solution. Indeed, a cup of coffee first thing in the morning is okay to get you going, but relying solely on caffeine to combat fatigue will ultimately work against you.
The reason: Caffeine stimulates your cells to work harder, so initially you feel a boost, but it runs your mitochondrial batteries down faster, ultimately robbing your cells — and you — of energy. The stimulant also adversely affects sleep, which should be prime time for mitochondrial recovery.
Instead, I’ve learned that a combination of taking the right energizing and supportive herbs in combination with minimizing troublesome System Disruptors is the most effective way to recharge your internal batteries and get your body humming.
1. Utilize Energizing Adaptogens
To restore normal energy, you have to take the stress off your cells, give your mitochondria an opportunity to recharge, and restore normal cellular communications. For that purpose, herbal adaptogens should be at the top of your list.
Adaptogens are substances that counteract the primary stress factors in your life. Over time, chronic stress can wreak havoc on your immune and nervous systems, and send hormones like adrenaline and cortisol coursing through your body, eventually perpetuating an overactive flight-or-fight response. But adaptogens, as the name suggests, can help you adapt to the daily stress that otherwise leaves you feeling exhausted.
One of the primary benefits of adaptogenic herbs is balancing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), the central connection between your brain (central nervous system) and the hormone systems that coordinate functions of all the cells in your body (endocrine system). The hypothalamus in the brain manages all the homeostatic functions in the body, including sleep, adrenal, and thyroid function.
When you are chronically stressed, HPA axis functions become disrupted. By taking an adaptogen, you’re consuming plant phytochemicals that calm the receptors in the hypothalamus and balance abnormal messengers coming from the brain and the body. Adaptogens aid the hypothalamus in better tolerating stress and getting us out of the flight-or-fight response. This allows for the restful sleep that is necessary for mitochondria to recharge.
The plant phytochemicals in adaptogens do much more than just balance the HPA axis, however. They also balance disrupted immune system communications, allowing the immune system to do its job of controlling vagrant microbes.
What’s more, adaptogens also stimulate immune cells to go after intracellular microbes, the type of microbes commonly associated with a growing list of chronic illnesses. And their plant phytochemicals provide antioxidants that protect cells and mitochondria directly.
My adaptogens of choice for restoring energy include:
Due to its ability to reduce mental and physical fatigue, rhodiola is a favorite among Russian athletes. The mildly-stimulating herb can enhance alertness and improve memory, plus it has it antidepressant properties.
Rhodiola is mainly sourced from Siberia, but various species of it can grow throughout the world. Additionally, it bolsters cardiovascular function, protects brain and nerve tissue, and supports immune function.
Suggested dosage: 100-200 mg of standardized extract (2-3% rosavins, 0.8-1% salidroside) twice daily.
Side effects: Rhodiola is mildly stimulating for some people. Though rhodiola is a favorite for energizing the body, it should be avoided during recovery until normal sleep is restored.
Ashwagandha has a longstanding history of medicinal use in Ayurvedic medicine, and it’s known for its ability to balance, energize, rejuvenate, and revitalize the body. It’s a calming herb that balances the HPA axis, supports your resistance to stress, improves sleep, fights fatigue, and lessens the symptoms of brain fog.
Suggested dosage: Varies according to the preparation of the herb; follow the instructions on the product label
Side effects: Ashwagandha may cause mild stimulation in some individuals, but less so than rhodiola. Most people tolerate it just fine. Often, it improves sleep. Additionally, it contains iron, so it should be avoided by individuals who retain iron (hemochromatosis).
This fungal species grows on a specific type of caterpillar during certain times of the year. Native to Tibet, cordyceps has immunomodulating properties, improves your resistance to stress, reduces fatigue, and protects against mitochondrial burnout.
Suggested dosage: 1-3 grams (1000-3000 mg) whole mushroom cordyceps powder, or 400-800 mg extract (standardized to >7% cordycepic acid is preferred) two to three times daily
Side effects: Although rare, mild nausea can occur.
This mushroom has immunomodulating and antiviral properties. Its fatigue-fighting capacity is largely due to the herb’s ability to restore normal adrenal-cortical function. In other words, reishi supports adrenal health and balances your body’s stress response and hormones.
Suggested dosage: 1-2 grams (1000-2000 mg) whole mushroom powder, or 150-500 mg standardized extract (minimum 20% beta-glucans preferred) two to three times daily
Side effects: The herb is well tolerated by most people.
Ultimately, herbs like energizing adaptogens have a direct protective effect on your cells — they increase oxygenation of tissues, and they have antioxidant properties, which protects the cells from free radical damage when you’ve pushed yourself too intensely.
2. Support Mitochondrial Function
Mitochondria are responsible for the majority of energy our bodies need to live and keep our organs functioning well. To be healthy, cells need raw materials to fuel their mitochondria.
Though a healthy diet is the best way to obtain those raw materials, if your mitochondria are chronically stressed, their resources can become depleted. The following supplements help feed your mitochondria:
A key nutrient for generating cellular energy, CoQ10 also acts as a potent antioxidant, inhibiting free-radical damage to the cell and mitochondrial membrane. Although the body can make CoQ10 and acquire it from food, levels are quickly depleted when the energy demands of the body are substantial — such as during recovery from chronic illnesses like Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).
Suggested dosage: Use ubiquinol, the reduced form of CoQ10. Take 20-100 mg twice daily.
Side effects: Although rare, CoQ10 may cause mild gastrointestinal (GI) distress in some people.
Composed of three amino acids — glutamic acid, cysteine, and glycine — glutathione is considered the “master” antioxidant of the body because every cell uses it. It protects mitochondria from free-radical damage during the production of energy, it’s a vital component of phase II detoxification in the liver, and it fortifies immune functions. Those with Lyme disease may benefit from taking glutathione orally to reduce or manage Herxheimer reactions.
Suggested dosage: 500-1000 mg twice daily of reduced glutathione (some people will experience benefits with the liposomal form)
Side effects: Glutathione is a sulfur-based supplement, which may be problematic for some individuals.
Another powerful antioxidant, NAC (n-acetyl cysteine) aids in the creation of glutathione inside the cells. NAC inhibits inflammatory cytokines and collagen breakdown. If you’re treating Lyme disease or coinfections, NAC hinders the formation of bacterial biofilms.
Suggested dosage: 500-2000 mg twice daily
Side effects: Side effects are considered rare, but in high doses, NAC may cause GI discomfort, nausea, and vomiting.
ALA (alpha lipoic acid) is an antioxidant that’s both water and fat-soluble. This enables it to be easily absorbed and to work with antioxidants already present inside cells — like vitamin C, vitamin E, and NAC — to reduce cellular damage from free radicals. ALA also regenerates glutathione, protects liver function and nerve tissue, and removes toxins from the body.
Suggested dosage: 50-300 mg twice daily
Side effects: Some people report reflux with ALA and don’t feel well when taking high doses.
An amino acid, L-carnitine plays a role in the metabolism of fatty acids in mitochondria. More specifically, acetyl-l-carnitine is a more absorbable form via the gut, and it crosses the blood-brain barrier more effectively. It has antioxidant and neuroprotective properties.
Though commonly recommended as a supplement, the body can make l-carnitine from the amino acids lysine and methionine. However, if your diet is primarily a vegan or vegetarian one, you might not be getting enough l-carnitine through food alone, as top food sources include meat, fish, poultry, and dairy.
Additionally, genetics could play a role in the body’s ability to utilize this nutrient to create energy. Lower levels of l-carnitine can also occur in people with ME/CFS and fibromyalgia.
Unlike some of the more stimulating herbs, you might not notice much of a change in your stamina or energy levels for the first several weeks. Also, l-carnitine levels tend to lessen with age, resulting in more fatigue. Some people may find l-carnitine a useful supplement to enhance energy.
Suggested dosage: 500-1000 mg of acetyl-l-carnitine twice daily
Side effects: Gastrointestinal upset has been noted, however, most people will find acetyl-l-carnitine tolerable.
3. Minimize System Disruptors
In addition to herbs and other supplements, you’ll need to address the chronic stress factors in your life that are zapping your energy stores on a cellular level.
Unfortunately, life in the modern world places unique energy demands on our bodies, especially when we’re bombarded with around-the-clock stimulation. But by minimizing your exposure to System Disruptors as much as possible, you’ll move more rapidly from a state of continuous fatigue to one of increased energy and stamina.
System Disruptor: An Unnatural, Carbohydrate-Laden Diet
When you’re struggling with extreme fatigue, it’s easy to throw a frozen pizza in the oven or pop a frozen dinner in the microwave to save time and precious energy. But eating calorie-dense processed and packaged foods like this on a regular basis overloads your mitochondria with cheap fuel (aka carbohydrates), causing them to sputter and stall. It’s one of the worst things you can do to your mitochondria.
To fuel up on nutrient-dense foods, steer clear of the center aisles, which are stocked with boxed and packaged products. Instead, shop the perimeter of the grocery store where the freshest items are on display, and load your cart with whole foods including ample vegetables, healthy protein sources (fish, beans, eggs, or organic meats), healthy fats such as olive oil and avocados, and low-sugar fruits.
System Disruptor: A Toxic Environment
Hidden toxins in your home, such as mold, toxicants (byproducts from the plastic, petroleum, and coal industries), and artificial energy from electronic devices can hinder your body’s ability to produce energy, contribute to systemic inflammation, and suppress critical immune system functions.
Reduce your exposure to environmental toxins as much as possible. The less time your body has to spend dealing with an onslaught of environmental toxins, the more you’ll notice your energy levels improve. Some simple ways to get started:
- Choose glass jars over plastic ones
- Filter your water and air
- Don’t sleep with your phone by your bedside, and do digital detoxes whenever possible
- Be vigilant about hidden sources of moisture or mold in your home, and clean them up as soon as possible.
System Disruptor: Chronic Stress
Ongoing stress (from challenging symptoms, financial pressures, a difficult work environment, etc.) is a common denominator among people who experience persistent fatigue. Plus, the lingering uncertainty of chronic illness — not knowing how you’re going to make it through today, much less the next one — drives up your adrenaline levels, disrupts circadian rhythm, and compounds the difficulty of getting a good night’s sleep. Chronic stress also has a significant impact on the immune system’s ability to ward off stealth microbes, all of which can deplete your energy levels.
I realize that reducing stress is easier said than done, but it’s integral to improving energy levels. Dedicate some time every day to finding calm: Laugh, read a good novel, nap, go outside, or do whatever works for you to mitigate stress. Consider this a daily prescription to do a half-hour of your favorite light-hearted activity to unwind, find some peace and tranquility, and let go of the pressures of life.
System Disruptor: A Sedentary Lifestyle
Over time, getting too little activity can lead to reduced mitochondrial function, diminished circulation, an inability to expel toxins from your body, worsening immune function, and escalating levels of fatigue.
If your fatigue is severe, or you suffer from post-exertional malaise (PEM), you might not be up to the task of increasing your activity level; sometimes, you may need to rest until you’re further along in your recovery. However, when you’re ready to increase movement, remember that low-impact, restorative exercises can provide the gentle boost you need to foster an active lifestyle and bolster mitochondria without overdoing it. Regularly enjoying activities like yoga, Pilates, a slow walk, or qigong helps generate the formation of new mitochondria.
System Disruptor: An Imbalance in Your Microbiome
A microbiome imbalance worsens symptoms like fatigue and adds to a dysfunctional immune system where harmful microbes can flourish.
To fight fatigue from all angles, consider using an herbal approach to balancing your microbiome in conjunction with energy-boosting herbs and natural supplements. Most herbs allow you to suppress the bad microorganisms without killing off the beneficial flora in your gut. Some of my favorites include:
The Bottom Line
Thankfully, for most people, following my three-step approach is enough to bust out of the fatigue rut and give your body the raw materials it needs to fuel up and repair tissues. Though it will take some time, with patience, persistence, and smart lifestyle choices, health and vitality can be within your grasp once again.