How Your Gut Health Impacts Your Energy Levels
Your gut affects far more than, well, just your gut. Consider the mind-gut connection, for example, which is how the stomach responds to the signals fired from our brain, related to our mood. But our gut's reach is even further—it can also impact our energy levels. "The gut is one of the few organs in the body that has direct interaction with the external environment—namely food—and, as such, is a complex ecosystem that directly feeds fluid and nutrients to all of your cells," explains Rusha Modi, M.D., M.P.H., a gastroenterologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Southern California. "Thus, what you eat in a physiological sense can directly affect what you become in terms of your health in both its totality and its parts."
If you're feeling bouts of low energy throughout the day, it's entirely possible that your gut health may be to blame—although it's worth pointing out that there are a myriad of factors that could be at play. "Low energy is a persistent, seemingly ubiquitous ailment that has a litany of potential causes, however, the digestive tract is a common link in many of these complaints. I often do a detailed history with patients who are 'running on E,'" says Dr. Modi, adding that he inquires about his patients' four "T's" of eating: type (of food, namely both micro and macro nutrient intake), total (calories), timing (when they eat), and thirst (hydration status). This, he explains, often gives him a greater sense of where to start when investigating more concerning symptoms.
While there is no official data just yet to back up the fact that gut health directly impacts energy levels, many theories exist. "There are links to an unhealthy balance of bacteria in our gut possibly contributing to poor sleep, which is thought to be related to serotonin levels produced in the gut and the low levels associated with poor gut health," explains Rabia A. De Latour, M.D., a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
One small study published in the journal Microbiome found that the bacterial species in patients with chronic fatigue systems were different from those in healthy patients. Although Dr. De Latour points out that this doesn't prove that the microbiome dictates the presence of this disease process, it is another clue towards a possible link.
There is also a potential link between binge eating and a stark dip in energy afterwards—something we often refer to as a "food coma." This occurs not only as a result of feeling physically heavier, but also because increased blood flow to your gut provides energy to the system working hardest at that time, Dr. De Latour explains. "This in turn will cause a slightly decreased blood supply to other organ systems, and this, in combination with fluctuations in blood sugar and the interplay between various gut hormones, like tryptophan and serotonin, can cause one to feel quite fatigued."
You have likely experienced this: Consider how you feel after a Thanksgiving dinner, when you are bloated, tired, and unable to do much activity either physically or mentally. There are several reasons for these post-turkey side effects, from blood rushing to the gut to aid in digestion, to spikes in blood sugar and corresponding insulin, to elevations in temperature and heart rate to increases in gastric volume to accommodate the food, explains Dr. Modi. "Now imagine what happens when you have a reasonable amount of food, such as lean protein, fruit, or a small sandwich with healthy fats," he says. "You probably feel comfortable but not stuffed, mildly distended in the abdomen, but not bloated—and your mind is still sharp."
Dr. Modi's best advice for maintaining consistent energy levels that are neither super high nor ultra low is to eat healthy meals that are moderately portioned. "Pay attention to how you feel after you eat certain foods—not just immediately, but in the subsequent hours after a meal," he says. "An anecdotal rule of thumb is that you should feel comfortable, but not stuffed within 30 minutes to one hour after eating and ready to engage in a moderately pace walk without much discomfort."