Mitochondria (a.k.a. the human “energy factories” inside our cells) are working constantly to fuel our cells. When they don’t receive the right nutrients from the food we eat, however, these little energizer bunnies start losing steam and may get a little rusty.
You may be thinking, what does rusty mitochondria feel like? Simple: Lower energy and fatigue. Sound familiar? While many busy professionals experience these symptoms on a regular basis, it’s important to clarify that this is NOT normal. Feeling tired and having low energy all the time is less of an inconvenience and more of a serious red flag!
Ongoing fatigue, in fact, may indicate an underlying health issue or nutritional deficiency. Not to be an alarmist, but even the slightest of nutritional deficiencies have been shown to be the root cause of many chronic diseases (Fletcher).
Fatigue is considered a nonspecific symptom because it can be associated with many conditions and diseases. But, combine it with chronic stress and a less than ideal diet and you’re likely experiencing the effects of mitochondrial “rust.”
The good news is that there are plenty of super powerful nutrients that help your mitochondrial engines work effectively and efficiently. Each nutrient plays a variety of roles in helping the mitochondria create human fuel or ATP. Here are a few examples (and make sure to think about your own diet while reading!)
Riboflavin (vitamin B2) is found in green plants, tomatoes, eggs and meat. Critical to our cells creating energy, a deficiency can lead to anemia which is another factor that causes fatigue.
Niacin (vitamin B3) is found in whole grains and meat (since some animals eat grains or plants that contain nicotinic acid which converts to niacin.) This vitamin is another critical component for many steps in energy production in the form of coenzymes FAD and FADH. Fun fact: Alcohol impairs absorption of niacin, so relieving stress with vino or beer is adding to your sluggishness. Sorry!
Magnesium is found in pumpkin seeds, beans (the darker the better), almonds and grains like millet and amaranth. With chronic stress, your body needs more magnesium to convert cortisol to its inactive form. Regardless of your stress level, magnesium is key in the citric acid cycle, the biochemical process that converts glucose from carbohydrates to energy.
Iron is found in poultry, red meat, spinach, blackstrap molasses, hemp and pumpkin seeds. Many adults, especially women, are walking around borderline anemic (i.e. low iron) and do not realize iron deficiency impacts energy levels and metabolism. Like magnesium, your body needs iron in the citric acid cycle to make ATP/energy.
Other B Vitamins (thiamin, pantothenic acid, B6 and biotin) are found in a variety of foods and needed in several different steps of energy production. For example, when you’re sleeping or between meals, your body makes HUGE amounts of energy from fatty acids in a process called Beta Oxidation that requires several B vitamins including pantothenic acid. You can get the biggest bang for your buck with the pantothenic acid found in sunflower seed kernels, lobster, avocado and sweet potato.
When you’re exercising, your body uses a stored, easily accessible form of glucose called glycogen to create energy. To use glycogen, you need adequate vitamin B6. So remember to eat those dark, leafy greens like kale that you skip at the salad bar—those puppies are loaded with B6! It’s also found in cantaloupe, navy beans, poultry and fish.
Biggest takeaway from learning about all these nutrients? Your diet matters! Chronic stress may cause you to crave sugar and unhealthy fats in fried or fast food, but this then makes you more tired. Make sure you’re getting enough leafy greens, seeds, almonds and nuts, whole grains (real grains not grains milled into flour that are missing the B vitamins), poultry and iron-rich foods!
Which food will you add more of this week? Choose one a week and before you know it, you’ll be on your way to an energy boosting diet in no time!
Fletcher, R. H., & Fairfield, K. M. (2002). Vitamins for chronic disease prevention in adults: clinical applications. Jama, 287(23), 3127-3129.