Nutrient Deficiencies Linked to Fatigue and How to Increase Energy Through Food

delicious healthy bowls veggies quinoa chicken

Is it a struggle to get out of bed in the morning? Do you find yourself saying no to activities because you don’t have the energy? Have you found that you crash frequently and need to take a nap to get through the day?

If you frequently feel exhausted even after sleeping through the night, hit that afternoon slump daily, or generally feel fatigued, you understand the struggle of lacking the energy needed to tackle your day.

Chronically low energy is one of the most common health problems I hear about as a preventive medicine physician. In general, fatigue is defined as a state of exhaustion or extreme tiredness that may be accompanied by feelings of sleepiness, irritability, weariness, and difficulty concentrating. Being chronically tired affects physical and mental health as well as overall quality of life. While fatigue is common, it is not normal to feel constantly run down and sluggish.

Common Nutrient Deficiencies Linked to Fatigue

Since every cell in your body relies on a range of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to generate energy, it is not surprising that your energy level is highly influenced by the nutrients you take in and absorb.

Imbalances in both macro- and micronutrients can contribute to persistent fatigue. Macronutrients include fats, proteins, and carbohydrates that are used for creating energy and building up the body’s cells. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals that you need in small amounts from your diet so your body can function. Many vitamins and minerals play key roles in supporting energy production from the use of macronutrients.

Various common nutrient deficiencies may contribute to fatigue. Here are some of the most common  deficiencies:

  • Iron
  • B12 and other B vitamins
  • Vitamin C
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorous
  • Calcium
  • Copper
  • Manganese
  • Zinc
  • Chromium

Factors that increase the risk for inadequate levels of these nutrients include:

  • Insufficient intake due to imbalanced, highly processed, or restricted diets
  • Periods of extensive physical or emotional stress
  • Increased demands on the body, such as those that occur during pregnancy and growth
  • Altered metabolism and/or nutrient absorption due to a variety of underlying conditions 

For example, a diet high in processed foods, added sugars, and refined carbohydrates generally lacks crucial micronutrients your body needs to create sustained energy for optimal health. In addition, the tracking of USDA food composition data suggests that the soil in many areas has been depleted of vital nutrients, as some foods may be less rich in energy-supporting nutrients than they were in the past.

This type of diet can also increase inflammation in the digestive tract and throughout the body. An inflammatory diet increases the permeability or “leakiness” of the gut, which can contribute to additional inflammation and poor absorption of nutrients that are required for sustained and balanced energy production. Certain infections and imbalances in the gut microbiome also contribute to increased permeability of the digestive tract and subsequent malabsorption of these critical nutrients.

Perfect Health AD

Eat Your Way to More Energy

Fatigue can be a symptom of many potential issues in addition to imbalanced nutrition, including stress, a lack of restful sleep, anemia, autoimmune conditions, sleep apnea, depression, and various other illnesses. Since there are many factors that can contribute to fatigue, it is important to check with your healthcare provider to evaluate your individual situation.

Often, addressing nutrient deficiencies and maintaining a balanced diet of real, whole foods can play a significant role in maintaining vibrant energy. While your first instinct may be to reach for another cup of caffeine or a sugary snack when fatigue sets in, there are  more effective strategies to eat your way to more energy. Here are three of the top nutrient deficiencies to consider if you feel rundown and want to eat your way to more energy!

1. Iron

Iron deficiency is a common cause of anemia that frequently manifests as persistent fatigue. This is due to the fact that iron is needed to produce hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen to your cells.

Women of childbearing age more frequently suffer iron deficiency because of increased blood and iron loss through menstruation. Iron deficiency can also occur in endurance athletes and those with malabsorption from various causes.

While free-range, dark red meats, and organ meats such as liver and kidney are the richest dietary sources of iron,  plant-based foods including dark, leafy greens; legumes; and whole grains can also provide a form of this nutrient. The iron found in plant foods is a slightly different type from that found in meats, which makes plant-based iron less easy to absorb Therefore, it is important to consume foods rich in vitamin C at the same time as plant-based sources of iron to increase iron absorption. It is also important to note that teas can inhibit iron absorption due to their tannin content.

Be sure to monitor your iron levels with your healthcare provider since too much iron can be harmful as well.

2. B Vitamins—Including B12

The B family of vitamins are needed for your body to convert nutrients into energy. These water-soluble vitamins include B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6, B12, folate, and biotin. These vitamins work together in the body to support energy production, so imbalances or deficiencies in even one B vitamin can compromise important biochemical reactions needed for transforming food into energy.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is particularly linked to fatigue, weakness, and neurological symptoms, as well as anemia, since vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is essential for red blood cell production. A deficiency in vitamin B12 may occur due to a diet lacking nutrient-dense foods such as grass-fed meats, poor absorption of nutrition, low stomach acid, excessive alcohol consumption, and other health issues.

Since vitamin B12 is synthesized by certain bacteria found in the digestive tracts of animals, the  primary food sources are meats from predators located higher in the food chain. Foods that are rich in vitamin B12 include meats, poultry, fish, and eggs. Vegan sources of vitamin B12 include nutritional yeast, certain fermented foods, algae, some mushrooms, and seaweed, although it may be more difficult to absorb B12 from plant sources.

3. Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral that is essential for cellular health and serves as a critical component of hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body, including those involved with food metabolism and energy production. For example, magnesium is necessary for generating and storing the energy molecule ATP

Magnesium deficiency in the United States is widespread. This is due to both inadequate dietary intake as well as taking certain medications, smoking, and drinking alcohol.

Apple, legumes, avocado, raisins, spinach, and other leafy greens are all good sources of magnesium. Magnesium often works in conjunction with calcium in the body, so these two minerals need to be in balance. Many whole foods provide both, such as kale, almonds, and quinoa.

Consider these nutritional strategies to stay alert and awake throughout the day. Consistently consuming a balanced, nutrient-dense diet optimized for your unique needs can help you restore your energy levels!

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.


Give your body, mind, and spirit a fresh start—and commit to healthier habits—at Perfect Health, our intimate wellness retreat customized just for you. Learn More.


Share This Article
About the Author

Jennifer Weinberg

Preventive and Lifestyle Medicine Physician and Author
Dr. Jennifer Weinberg, MD, MPH, MBE is a preventive and lifestyle medicine physician, author, corporate wellness specialist, blogger, and the founder of the Simple | Pure | Whole Wellness Method. Weinberg offers innovative online wellness and education programs for individuals looking for sustainable optimal health as well as health care providers seeking health communications support and corporations wanting to integrate a comprehensive approach to corporate wellness. Get a free preview of her best-selling stress management guide ...Read more