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Fatigue seems to be trending. Are you one of the many struggling under the weight of all you are obliged to take on? 

I think we have lost our way a little bit when we consider all we do and how we support the processes. Many people have physically demanding days, paired with the mental challenges that living and working in 2019 demand.  Are your muscles and brain primed for this load? Let’s take a dive into what that actually means. You might have to drag yourself back to school biology for a minute, but it will be only a minute, and worth it…

Your body’s fuel is called ATP. It’s made in the mitochondria, the ‘battery’ in our cells.  It’s the molecule that allows us to move. It’s big, and heavy, and needs to be synthesised to be practical and there are only 2 ways – one from carbs (aerobic, with oxygen) and one from fat (anaerobic); the fat synthesis is efficient but slow. The Carb synthesis is less efficient but fast.  Basically, when you’re running around all day, thinking and planning and managing crises in between, still going to gym or for a run and bringing work home/doing homework with kids/ other mental activities, you’re using thousands of ATP molecules. 

Most of the carbohydrates we eat are converted to glucose, our main source of immediately used energy. When the body doesn’t need the fuel, the glucose molecules are linked together in chains of eight to 12 glucose units which form a glycogen molecule. Glycogen is stored in both the liver and the muscles for later use, when we have depleted our current intake.  The liver can store about 400 calories of glycogen, and muscles around 1600 (but the more muscle you have the more you can store) and if you still have more than you need, the glycogen will be stored in body fat (so the fat stores are the last to be accessed).

So what happens if you’re eating a low carb or no carb diet? 

The common theory is that once your glycogen is depleted, you’ll start burning fat for fuel, or enter a state of ketosis, but this is a ludicrous oversimplification.  Burning fat or ketogenisis is not a game you play with your metabolism. It’s a lifesaving mechanism that kicks in to keep you alive in times of drought or famine and it takes time. Your body can’t flip a switch between aerobic and anaerobic energy production. So in reality when you deplete your glycogen stores you get exhausted, fatigued, your muscles feel ‘flat’, your recovery rate increases and you generally feel what you are – depleted.

At this junction we must conclude that carbs are not the enemy. And also that all carbs are not equal; so maybe some carbs are the enemy… processed sugar, energy drinks, highly processed flour foods, snack foods, smoothies and other quick-fix methods often provide a ludicrous amount of simple sugars, resulting only in insulin spikes, sugar dysregulation and glycogen storage in fat cells. Carbs from veggies, whole grains and home-made food has a lower and slower release, and is able to fuel us immediately and to add to glycogen stores for later use and not result in insulin spikes. Finding the balance is crucial and each person has to work out what’s best for them. A healthy carb + protein breakfast works well for some, while others need protein + fat at breakfast and a protein + carb at lunch. A very busy and wired person might need a small amount of carb at night to induce sleep – Carbohydrates make tryptophan more available to the brain, which is why carbohydrate-heavy meals can make you drowsy. Proteins from the food we eat are the building blocks of tryptophan, which is why the best bedtime snack is one that contains both a carbohydrate and protein, such as peanut butter on toast, or cheese and wholewheat (homemade) crackers.

Fatigue is a complicated thing.  I didn’t even scratch the tip of the iceberg here. The point of this particular blog is that we can’t put diesel in a petrol engine because it’s cheaper or more convenient. To stretch the analogy, your petrol is not all your car needs – oil, water, antifreeze, tyres pumped, widow-washer fluid, aircon gas… not all are required for immediate and actual running of the vehicle but without them it’s not functioning optimally. We can get into supplements, sleep, exercise and stress and how they affect this picture, as do hormones – it’s a deep and wide topic but I hope this much has been a helpful start.

*this blog is for the purposes of health promotion and understanding and is not meant as diagnosis or offering of medical advice.  All explanations have been oversimplified for general understanding because the issue at hand is complicated*