Chloe is nine years old and she is constantly exhausted. She is also unable to fall asleep at night, is picking up infections all of the time and experiences regular headaches. When she gets home from basketball on the weekend she takes herself to her bedroom and puts herself to bed. No nine year old should be feeling this way. We think kids should have an abundant reserve of energy to draw on to play and learn and be active. When we identified and addressed that Chloe was in fact very iron deficient and her immune system was still being impacted by the exposure to a virus she had in the past she was quickly feeling back to her old bubbly and confident self.
The worrying thing here is Chloe is not alone. It’s not uncommon for kids to be suffering from exhaustion. Do you have a child who constantly tells you they are tired? They go to bed at the right time, wake at the right time and yet, they are still exhausted. Unexplained fatigue can be caused by a range of factors. It’s important to leave no stone unturned to find out the cause of fatigue in kids because kids should be full of energy and able to do all of the busy things kids do!
Here are some of the causes of low energy in kids that you may want to rule out for your tired child:
Iron deficiency anemia
This is an important one to rule out. Common causes off iron deficiency include not eating enough iron-rich foods like red meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Kids also have small tummies and that small surface area means that even if they are eating iron rich meals a few days of the week they may not be absorbing enough of it. If you are raising a vegetarian child you need to focus on vegetarian sources of iron and seriously consider an ongoing iron supplement.
Vitamin B12 deficiency anemia
Vitamin B12 deficiency is much like an iron deficiency. Instead of seeing shrinking red blood cells unable to circulate oxygen around the body, we see enlarged red blood cells unable to do this. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal protein such as red meat, poultry, fish eggs and dairy.
If your child does eat iron and B12 rich foods in abundance then it’s important to take a closer look at their gut function and check that they are absorbing the nutrients from their food. Again, if you are raising vegan or vegetarian children it is important to do ongoing supplementation of vitamin B12.
It’s not uncommon to see kids pick up parasite infections that cause malabsorption of vitamins and minerals over time. Young kids aren’t the most hygienic and picking up a gut bug is a common occurrence. Giardia lamblia is a parasite that sets up shop in the small intestine and it covers the absorptive surface where we do most of our nutrient absorption. Eradicating Giardia in the most gentle way possible is important for improving nutrient deficiencies and energy levels.
I know it sounds crazy that kids could be burnt out by stress but this is a possibility. Increasingly kids are over stimulated and can feel stressed out. Kids who are prone to poor stress tolerance, anxiety and behavioural problems are prone to compromised cortisol output. By testing morning blood or saliva cortisol levels we are able to capture what your child’s stress response looks like. If it is low it is important to help the body restore a normal adrenal response.
Post viral load
Kids that have had an episode of glandular fever can experience prolonged fatigue after the initial infection. Glandular fever is caused by a virus that usually teenagers in their senior school years with the pressure of increased work load to get their high school certificate impacting their immunity. Blood testing to look for current and past exposure to Epstein-Barr or Cytomegalovirus and a white cell count that has not gone back to normal are all good ways to investigate this possibility. Addressing post viral load and supporting health immune function can really help improve energy levels.
Mitochondrial dysfunction refers to reduced energy being produced by the mitochondria in each of our cells. Some kids do experience fatigue because their body is not creating enough of our body’s energy fuel source called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is made in a biochemical pathway called the citric acid cycle and if the nutritional cofactors to get this cycle working efficiently are not present that presents as chronic fatigue. Doing a simple biochemistry blood test can give you some clues about whether your child has mitochondrial dysfunction issues.
Your thyroid gland plays a big role in energy levels. Thyroid function is one of the first places health professionals look when someone presents with tiredness but often subclinical low thyroid function is missed in children when practitioners are not looking at the ideal paediatric reference ranges for thyroid hormone. Your child may have a low thyroid presentation and it can be missed. If you are seeing weight fluctuations, changes in thermal regulation (i.e. often intolerant to the cold) and mood changes along with fatigue this is definitely something to rule out.
Coeliac disease does not always look like gut problems. This auto immune disease where the immune system reacts to gluten and causes damage to the small intestinal lining can look like fatigue and iron deficiency. Once the microvilli lining the small intestine are damaged or flattened our ability to absorb nutrients declines and fatigue kicks in.
Once the cause of a child’s fatigue there are nutritional and/or herbal approaches to balance these problems. It can be as simple as giving a vitamin B12 supplement or going through a regime of eradicating a gut bug or resolving a viral load issue and your little person can get back to being the high energy person you know and love.