Do you go to bed at a reasonable hour, get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep and still wake up feeling groggy and tired?
If so, you’re not alone. A recent YouGov survey found that three in five women (61%) say they feel tired when they wake up, even when they get a lot of sleep, while around half (49%) of men say the same.
While there are numerous health and lifestyle factors that might be at the root of your ongoing tiredness, one major marker that you might have overlooked is your gut health.
There are over 140,000 different microorganisms in your gut – and they can have a big impact on both your physical and mental wellbeing. We asked Nutritional Therapist Chris Barker (@thelifestyleclinic_cb) to explain how the bacteria in your body can cause you to feel tired, sluggish and reaching for a midday coffee.
Why the bacteria in your gut matters
Our bodies have an internal ecosystem of bacteria that’s known as the microbiome. This term relates to the billions of good bacteria, along with some viruses and fungi, that live in your body – most of which are found in your gut.
The microbes in our gut thrive on harmony and they’re constantly adapting to environmental challenges. Our health, diet, age, gender and everything we touch can alter their composition.
When your gut functions properly, there’s a delicate balance of bacteria helping your body extract energy from the foods you eat, fight toxins, protect against disease, and boost your mood. The key to good gut health is maintaining the balance between the good and bad bacteria in the microbiome. If your gut is acting differently than normal, it could be a sign it’s unbalanced.
“A very common symptom of poor gut health is feeling tired and sluggish,” says Barker. “Other signs include bloating, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, heartburn and abdominal pain.
“Some people might also notice changes to the skin (like eczema, skin rashes and acne), unexplained weight gain and increased sugar cravings.”
How can your gut contribute to feelings of tiredness?
Poor gut health can impact several different processes in the body that are related to your energy levels.
As Barker explains: “Food is our body’s fuel and it provides us with the energy we need to function. If our digestive system isn’t working optimally because of a gut health imbalance, we may become deficient in certain vitamins and minerals that are essential for energy production in the body.”
Barker says that the B vitamins, vitamin C, iron, magnesium and zinc are all important for the body when it comes to energy production.
Poor gut health could be a sign of what is known as ‘leaky gut’ too. “Essentially our gut acts as a barrier; when it’s functioning well, it selects the nutrients that can pass into the blood. If it becomes ‘leaky’, the gaps between cells are widened, allowing material which would not normally enter to get through,” says Barker.
“This can lead to a host of negative effects in the body, one of which is increased inflammation, which can contribute to general feelings of fatigue, tiredness, and exhaustion.”
New research is also uncovering that the gut can have a major influence on our mental health. Scientists believe we have a gut-brain axis; a constant flow of information between gut microbes and the central nervous system. “Our brains and our guts are linked,” affirms Barker, “so stress can cause imbalance of the gut, which can trigger a further stress response in the body.”
Stress in the body can alter our eating habits and hormones, leading us to favour food choices that are high in fat and sugar. “These types of foods cause crashes in blood sugar levels which can lead to further feelings of lethargy and fatigue throughout the day.”
If you’re feeling low on energy, what can you do to support your gut health?
Barker says that there are a few ways in which we can start to try and improve our gut health in order to improve our energy levels.
“Start with removing any foods that you might be intolerant to (a food diary can help here) and anything that might be inflaming the gut such as alcohol, processed foods and carbonated drinks.
“Make sure you replace any vitamins and minerals in your diet from the foods you’ve removed. For example, if you remove dairy products, it’s important to make sure you get calcium, vitamin D and B12 from other sources.”
Adding a good source of prebiotic foods to your diet can help promote the growth of health bacteria in the gut. “Prioritise prebiotic foods like asparagus, chicory root, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke, bananas and oats,” advises Barker. “Try also adding fermented foods into your diet too, such as kefir, Kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt.”
According to Charles Instone, founder of digestive enzyme company Wild Dose, “If you’re someone who experiences gas or stomach discomfort after eating, it might be a good time to consider taking digestive enzymes. When taken before food, they can help aid the digestion and breakdown of food – as a result, less gas is produced which can reduce your risk of bloating.”
Finally, focus on getting enough sleep and lowering your stress levels, to help keep tiredness at bay. “Try meditation, yoga, listening to music and going for long walks,” he advises. “Make sure you’re doing some form of exercise, although it’s important to note that too much high intensity exercise can have a negative impact on our gut.”
Finally? It’s a good idea to supplement with a daily multivitamin too. “Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D, vitamin A, omega 3 and zinc, which are all known to help heal our gut.”