One of the most common symptoms that patients complain of in our office is a constant feeling of fatigue. Sometimes this is directly related to a certain illness, condition, or medication – and other times it is just an unexplained tiredness that nothing seems to alleviate. Some people who feel a constant fatigue have trouble sleeping, and the tiredness is related to lack of adequate sleep. For others, however, a full night’s rest doesn’t give them the additional energy they crave.
From an acupuncture and Chinese Medicine perspective, there are numerous imbalances in our bodies that can cause the constant fatigue. I will explain some of the most common imbalances from an acupuncture perspective that lead to fatigue, lethargy, lack of energy and motivation, and tiredness.
Your energy is weakened or struggling.
Simply put, when systems in our body are compromised (through illness, heredity, stress, or lifestyle choices), they can’t produce the abundance of good, positive energy our body (and mind) needs to function. Many different energy systems in our body, when depleted, lead to a feeling of fatigue.
Spleen Qi: This is our day-to-day and digestive energy. If the Spleen Qi is weakened through poor diet, overthinking or overworking, or constant worry, we experience a day to day feeling of not having enough energy to get through the day. This kind of fatigue tends to improve with a good night’s sleep and a healthy diet.
Lung Qi: Lung Qi governs our breathing and circulation in the chest. When Lung Qi is compromised from an illness, smoking, or grief, we experience a fatigue that is worse upon exertion. Someone with Lung Qi deficiency fatigue may feel easily winded or experience shortness of breath with even minor physical movements. This kind of fatigue also improves with good sleep and a healthy diet.
Liver Blood: The blood energy is a more substantive level of energy in the body, meaning that when it is depleted, the problem is slightly deeper, and the fatigue may be slightly more pronounced. Liver blood can be depleted by overwork, poor sleep, poor diet, excessive bleeding, childbirth, prolonged illness, or prolonged feelings of insecurity. This kind of fatigue is often hard to shake, and can present as listlessness, weakness, and trouble falling asleep despite being tired. It can improve with dietary changes to nourish the blood, such as including more dark leafy greens and more organ meats.
Kidney Yang: Yang is the hot, fiery, expansive, active half of our body’s energy, and it resides in the kidneys. When Yang is depleted by old age, chronic illness, shock or trauma, overwork, excessive sexual activity, or excessive exposure to cold climates, the kind of fatigue experienced is a deep lethargy. Someone who is kidney yang deficient is likely cold all the time, gets exhausted easily, and doesn’t find that sleeping gives their energy a big boost. Kidney Yang fatigue can be aided by including a very nourishing diet (such as bone broth soup), moving at a slower pace to give the body time to catch up, and getting plenty of rest. Do not push through a yang deficiency fatigue.
Kidney Yin: Yin is the cool, watery, inward, passive half of our body’s energy, which also resides in the kidneys. Yin is depleted in the aging process, and also overwork, excessive sexual activity, and excessive drug or medication use can deplete the yin. Fatigue from yin deficiency often presents as a day to day feeling of tiredness, restlessness, and lack of mental clarity. Rest, relaxation, and a very nourishing and cooling diet can help to nourish kidney yin and improve energy.
Your energy is stuck.
Fatigue in Chinese Medicine does not always stem from a weakness in your body’s energy, however. Sometimes fatigue comes from energy not moving properly. Health, in Chinese Medicine, is all about the smooth flow of energy through the body. When something alters that smooth slow – illness, injury, trauma, stress, poor lifestyle choices, etc – health conditions can occur.
When your body’s energy is not flowing the way it should be, your body actually has to exert a lot more energy to keep you running well. When there is stagnation in the body, think of it like a hamster in a wheel – running and running but not getting anywhere. This is frustrating and tiring – and can absolutely make us fatigued. The kind of fatigue that comes from Qi Stagnation (energy not flowing well) can present as a fatigue that is actually better with exercise or movement. It is the kind of fatigue that screams “No!” when you try to get up off the couch to go for a walk, but one that completely disappears upon returning home from that walk. Qi stagnation fatigue can make us feel “tired but wired,” and can also be closely related to feeling overwhelmed or run down by stress.
You are damp.
Dampness is a concept somewhat unique to Chinese Medicine – it refers to an abnormal processing of fluids in the body. Dampness can “lodge” itself in many different areas, and as such, can lead to numerous different symptoms. When dampness is pervasive throughout the whole body, usually one experiences a kind of constant fatigue – this can be both physical and mental. Patients who are tired from dampness describe feeling “sluggish,” “heavy,” or “fuzzy.” This kind of fatigue is greatly improved by making dietary changes that improve the function of the Spleen energy and eliminate dampness. You can read more about a Spleen-healthy diet here. Dampness is also helped by regular exercise – which helps to break through that sluggishness, and also trying to remove yourself from damp environments.
For all of these kinds of fatigue, acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine can help. Unlike caffeine or stimulants, the herbs and acupuncture work at rebalancing the body to restore your true energy and vitality, not just give you false energy. Especially when the fatigue comes from a weakness, it can take time to rebuild. But the combination of diet, lifestyle changes, and Chinese Medicine can get you back on the road to health, vitality, and feeling great!