Sounds familiar? Then you could be locked into a cycle of fatigue in which old energy levels will never be fully restored, according to natural therapist and psychotherapist Xandria Williams. Only a radical change in lifestyle, she believes, can bring sufferers back to peak health, the key being a dramatic change in eating habits.
Williams has spent 20 years treating patients for various exhaustion- related ailments. She was so struck by the number of clients suffering from fatigue that she resolved to examine the common factors in their lives to see what could be wearing them down. A pattern emerged of poor diet, exposure to toxins from sources such as cigarettes and workplace chemicals, and depleted immune systems. In a number of cases overwhelming tiredness was a symptom of more serious health conditions ranging from tired adrenal glands to hormonal problems, thrush, and heart trouble, while a few people were in the advanced stages of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, another name for Myalgic Encephalitis or ME.
Williams, a scientist by background, believes that the first step in beating fatigue lies in analysing what you eat. "Everyone who walks through my door says they are tired, a lot of people seem to think that's the norm. But tiredness is so unnecessary if you are getting everything you need. The body is like a car, it needs proper fuel and maintenance."
The idea that diet can affect your behaviour is not new. In the 1970s experiments suggested eating protein and carbohydrate together could influence synthesis of the brain chemical seratonin, which has a major impact on mood. As a result, theories have developed that carbohydrate-rich foods can relieve feelings of depression, and so craving stodgy meals in winter could be the body's way of fending off seasonal affective disorder.
Lacking energy, Williams believes, is not simply a matter of not eating enough, or eating the wrong things. It could also be the result of poor digestion, or a shortage of the essential trace nutrients, vitamins and minerals needed to allow food molecules to be taken up by cells within the body. While fatigue is not a new condition, its effects have become more pronounced in recent decades and Williams blames the modern lifestyle.
"Our diet has become much more processed and de-natured. If you grow plants in the same soil over and over again they won't have the trace nutrients we need. I have done experiments that prove if you pick fruit and vegetables before they are ripe to transport them to the supermarket, their vitamin levels will be far lower than if they had been allowed to ripen naturally. So even if you eat fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and low fat foods, you are still getting a diet less complete than the best possible diet a few centuries ago."
At the same time she believes that the body's nutritional requirement has increased to adjust to today's lifestyle. Chlorinated drinking water means the system needs more antioxidants, especially vitamin E; antibiotics reduce the body's ability to make B group vitamins and vitamin K, while stress fuels the need for all nutrients.
Her research suggests that, even with a carefully balanced diet, it is impossible to get all the recommended daily allowance of the 40 or so nutrients needed for the body to function perfectly. Food supplements are more or less essential, Williams believes.
Another important part of her recovery regime is to rid the body of unwanted toxins from sources as diverse as photocopiers, alcohol and pesticides. Should these accumulate, Williams says, the system becomes progressively less efficient and a self-destructive cycle ensues.
"Toxins put a strain on the body and use up energy reserves," says Williams. "They can cause problems because many of them are fat-soluble and the brain is rich in fats, so they can lodge there and become concentrated in the central nervous system, causing damage. Also they can get stored in the fat deposits in your body so if you try to lose weight they are released into the bloodstream and make you feel terrible."
Ultimately if too many harmful substances enter the body, an immense strain will be placed on the kidneys, Williams warns, which with the liver are the main detoxifiers. "In time this can result in a variety of symptoms including exhaustion. You might not think it can suddenly cause kidney or bladder problems, nausea, or tiredness, but it is a case of overload, the last straw."
Not everyone agrees with Williams' doomsday analysis, however. Dr John Axford, a consultant rheumatologist at St George's Hospital medical school, Tooting, who sees a number of patients suffering from Chronic Fatique Syndrome, believes that a careful exercise regime is often the most effective way of treating serious levels of exhaustion. But he does agree that poor diet can be a major factor in other health problems. "If you aren't getting a proper balanced diet then you may have malnutrition and that can affect your immune system, as can toxins such as pesticides."
The ME Association is currently monitoring research into whether industrial chemicals and pesticides can trigger chronic fatigue, following a number of cases where farm workers have developed ME-like symptoms. Dr Charles Shepherd, the association's medical adviser, agrees with Ms Williams that modifying diet can be useful to people with the condition. "We have some very clear nutritional advice, such as switching from quick-fix carbohydrate, like cakes, that upset your blood sugar levels, to more complex carbohydrates like pasta. Most people find they have problems with alcohol, and it's a good idea to reduce it or cut it out altogether, and the same goes for caffeine."
However, he is sceptical of some of Williams' other views and does not agree that there is a link between what you eat and the onset of ME. "Fatigue is a very complex problem and it is the product of several overlapping factors such as physical, psychological and social circumstances. On the whole I don't think diet has a major part to play."
Another contributory factor to fatigue is excessive stress. At the first sign of stress, known as the alarm stage, the body will pump adrenalin into the bloodstream, while blood will be channelled away from the digestive tract, colon and kidneys, and towards the limbs. This is the "fight or flight" response and quickly gives way to the adaptive stage when the body should start calmly adjusting to its new situation while adrenalin levels drop.
Difficulties arise when the adaptive stage become a constant state of being, Williams says. Energy levels will fluctuate wildly and the individual can feel as if they are working through a mental fog. The consequences, she says, can be severe: according to the ME Association, four out of five people with the condition appear to have developed it following a viral illness.
Williams' advice is stern. "It's easy on your bad days to say you are too tired to make the effort to shop and prepare better food, or take proper care of yourself. But there are no prizes for compromising your health until you reach the point of being of no use to anyone, least of all to yourself."
8 'Fatigue' by Xandria Williams is published tomorrow by Cedar, priced pounds 6.99.
how to beat fatigue
Examine your diet closely. You may think you are eating healthily but how many "treats" are you allowing yourself? Replace processed, fatty foods with fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrain products, and lean meat.
Cut down on coffee, even decaffeinated, as this still contains other compounds that can affect the nervous system. Better still, don't drink coffee at all but switch to herb teas and plenty of mineral water.
Reduce your alcohol intake or give it up altogether. Alcohol increases your need for all B vitamins and can interfere with your absorption of nutrients, as well as putting a strain on the liver. Drinks that contain yeast can encourage candida which lowers energy levels by producing toxins and causing damage to the digestive tract. Using alcohol as a pick-me- up to boost blood sugar levels is a mistake, as there will be an inevitable drop of energy later on.
Avoid eating at moments of acute stress. The body responds to stress by sending adrenalin from the adrenal glands, which has the effect of closing down your digestive system, and of stimulating the release of glucose from the liver. Later on, your blood sugar level will fall, leaving you tired and shaky.
Take regular exercise, important for boosting blood circulation to the tissues which improves their performance in the absorption of nutrients and take up of oxygen within cells. It also creates a general feeling of well-being.
Don't take sleep for granted. Think about the quality of your sleep. If after long periods of rest you still don't feel refreshed, you may be constantly disturbed by small noises in the night which prevent you from sleeping deeply. You could be allergic to dust mites in your mattress and bedding which are stirred up as you move in your sleep.