Unmasking GI Causes of Persistent Fatigue: When to Seek Help
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Unmasking GI Causes of Persistent Fatigue: When to Seek Help

Published on Wednesday, June 05, 2024
by
Keydella Fuller

Gut Health
IBS

The Link Between Persistent Fatigue and Gastrointestinal Health

Are you drained beyond the ordinary? Unexplained fatigue can signal underlying gut issues. Fatigue is a common complaint among many individuals. Chronic fatigue is estimated to affect 3.3 million Americans and around 50% of individuals with irritable bowel disease (IBD) experience fatigue. 

Fatigue is often thought to be due to our busy lifestyles, stress, or lack of sleep. However, it becomes chronic when fatigue becomes persistent and unrelenting, lasting more than six months. This requires a deeper look, and often, looking into gastrointestinal (GI) health can offer some insight into possible root causes. Together, we will explore potential GI culprits behind persistent exhaustion, learn red flags for seeking medical attention, and discover strategies for managing energy.

Exploring GI Culprits of Chronic Fatigue

Malabsorption of nutrients can lead to anemia (a common cause of fatigue). Poor nutrient intake can also affect the body's ability to regulate thyroid hormones and change thyroxine (T4) into the active form, triiodothyronine (T3), contributing to hypothyroidism (another common cause of fatigue). Another often overlooked cause of fatigue can be elevated blood sugars. All of these can be potentially linked to imbalances in gut health. 

The gastrointestinal system plays a pivotal role in our overall health, impacting nutrient absorption, immune function, and even hormonal balance. When the GI tract is compromised, it can lead to a cascade of issues such as inflammation, increased oxidative stress, and imbalance in gut bacteria, ultimately leading to chronic fatigue. Conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), celiac disease, and even common occurrences like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or leaky gut syndrome can significantly impact energy levels. 

Recognizing Red Flags: When to Seek Help

While it's normal to feel tired due to the hustle and bustle of daily life and lack of sleep, certain red flags indicate that your fatigue may be linked to a more serious problem:

Unexplained weight changes: Significant weight loss or gain without changes in diet or exercise routines should be discussed with a healthcare provider. 

Loss of Appetite: Lack of interest or desire to eat should also be discussed with a licensed healthcare provider. 

Other symptoms of concern can be abnormal bleeding, enlarged lymph nodes, goiter (enlarged thyroid gland), shortness of breath, or edema, which can all point to some underlying medical condition in which fatigue can be a symptom. Depression is another cause of fatigue of concern; this and other symptoms should be thoroughly discussed with a healthcare provider. 

Navigating Digestive Health: Managing Energy Levels

The initial step to work up fatigue is to seek evaluation by a medical provider or a functional medicine practitioner. I typically recommend my clients start with a comprehensive blood workup that includes a complete blood count, a complete metabolic panel (which includes electrolytes, kidney, and liver functions), a full thyroid panel with reverse T3 and thyroid anitobites as well as inflammatory markers such as c-reactive protein, Erythrocyte sedimentation rate, and homocysteine levels. If anemia is a cause, I also recommend checking b12 and folate levels and a Methylmalonic acid test.

Physiological fatigue from lifestyle and diet routine are not necessarily related to a medical problem and can be fairly easy to improve. Prioritizing sleep, a clean whole-food diet, and regular exercise are often great places to start. Individuals who experience GI symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, heartburn, and diarrhea may benefit from temporarily adjusting their diet with an elimination diet. i.e., a Low FODMAP for IBS, gluten-free for celiac disease or non-celiac gluten-sensitive individuals may be beneficial. To manage fatigue, it is helpful to understand the cause. 

Probiotics increases the gut microbiota and can help to rebalance dysbiosis, which can help fatigue, if this is part of the underlying cause. Another helpful approach involves enhancing nutrient absorption. One method is to incorporate digestive bitters or diluted apple cider vinegar into your routine, consumed about 15 minutes before meals. One study found that increasing polyphenol (dietary antioxidant) intake has been shown to increase beneficial bacteria and reduce harmful bacteria, as well as helping to increase short-chain fatty acid production to help maintain the gut lining integrity while also reducing gut inflammation and produce neurotransmitters to regulate the central nervous system like norepinephrine and dopamine. Polyphenols can be found in grapes, teas, curcumin, and supplements like quercetin and resveratrol. Be sure to speak to a healthcare provider before starting any supplements, as there can be medication interactions. 

Taking Action: Addressing the Root Causes of Fatigue

Persistent fatigue shouldn't be dismissed as merely a sign of a busy life or insufficient sleep. When fatigue is prolonged for more than six months, associated with symptoms like abdominal bloating and other gastrointestinal symptoms, or the presence of red flags, you should seek medical evaluation. You can address the root causes of exhaustion and reclaim your energy. Remember, fatigue is a symptom of a deeper underlying cause. Find the root cause of your fatigue to more effectively manage it. 

 

  1. Coltrera, F. (2023, December 19). Chronic fatigue syndrome is rising. Harvard Health. Retrieved March 20, 2024, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/chronic-fatigue-syndrome-is-rising-202312193003 
  2. Ho, D. C. H., & Zheng, R. M. (2022, November). Approach to fatigue in primary care. Singapore Medical Journal, 63(11), 674-678. https://journals.lww.com/smj/fulltext/2022/11000/Approach_to_fatigue_in_primary_care.6.aspx  
  3. König, R. S., Albrich, W. C., Kahlert, C. R., Bahr, L. S., Löber, U., Vernazza, P., Scheibenbogen, C., & Forslund, S. K. (2022). The Gut Microbiome in Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME)/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Frontiers in immunology, 12, 628741. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2021.628741 
  4. Luo, C., Wei, X., Song, J., Xu, X., Huang, H., Fan, S., Zhang, D., Han, L., & Lin, J. (2022). Interactions between Gut Microbiota and Polyphenols: New Insights into the Treatment of Fatigue. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 27(21), 7377. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules27217377 
  5. McMullen, M. K., Whitehouse, J. M., & Towell, A. (2015). Bitters: Time for a New Paradigm. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2015, 670504. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/670504 
  6. Nocerino, A., Nguyen, A., Agrawal, M., Mone, A., Lakhani, K., & Swaminath, A. (2020). Fatigue in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases: Etiologies and Management. Advances in therapy, 37(1), 97–112. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12325-019-01151-w 

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Keydella Fuller

MSN, APRN, FNP-C

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