Feeling Fatigued? Gut Health May be Affecting Your Energy Levels

by | Updated: February 9th, 2023 | Read time: 4 minutes

Feeling sluggish? Check in with your gut microbiome.

Gut health and energy levels are connected through an intricate cycle of interaction between your cells and the compounds your gut bacteria produce. Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are the main messengers, but here’s the catch: you have to make enough to benefit from their energy-boosting potential.

Woman Tasting Freshly Made Smoothie in Kitchen to Represent Concept of Does Gut Health Affect Energy

How does energy production work?

To understand how SCFAs can increase energy, you have to know a bit about energy production. (If you didn’t learn this in school, buckle up: it’s time for a science lesson!)

Cellular energy comes in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). You can think of ATP as the “power source” for many essential cell functions. For ATP to form, the food you eat needs to be broken down and sent through a series of three complex cellular processes:

  • Glycolysis breaks down glucose into a compound called pyruvate
  • The Kreb’s cycle converts pyruvate into ATP
  • Oxidative phosphorylation uses other compounds produced in the Kreb’s cycle to make more ATP

Here’s a quick overview of how it works.

Glycolysis uses glucose from the food you eat or from energy stores in your liver and muscles to make pyruvate. (Another process, gluconeogenesis, can make pyruvate from fats or proteins, but it isn’t as efficient.) This 10-step process produces two molecules of pyruvate and two of ATP.

Pyruvate goes through a process called oxidation to become a different molecule, acetyl-CoA, which passes into the Kreb’s cycle. Also known as the citric acid cycle or the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle, the Kreb’s cycle is an eight-step process that takes place inside mitochondria—your cell’s energy production powerhouses. Acetyl-CoA molecules go through complex reactions as they pass through the Kreb’s cycle, which create numerous compounds, including two ATP molecules.

Some of the other compounds serve as fuel for oxidative phosphorylation. This process includes two steps: the electron transport chain and chemiosmosis. In the electron transport chain, electrons move through a chain of four reactions, resulting in a buildup of protons outside the membrane of the mitochondria. In chemiosmosis, this “proton gradient” pushes protons through a special protein called ATP synthase that lines the inside of the membrane. ATP synthase harnesses energy from the protons as they move to create up to 32 more molecules of ATP.

How does gut health affect energy?

It turns out that the SCFAs produced by beneficial gut bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are involved in several pathways related to energy production.

The SCFA butyrate appears to be particularly important. Butyrate can feed into both the Kreb’s cycle and oxidative phosphorylation, and it can help your body to use fat for energy when glucose isn’t readily available.

High SCFA levels are associated with better glucose and fat metabolism, which gives your body more fuel to make ATP. SCFAs may also be able to prevent low energy by activating an enzyme called AMPK, which stimulates ATP production.

How to improve gut health for better energy

Fortunately, the solution to feeling sluggish and blah isn’t nearly as complicated as the energy production process. It all comes down to two things: good gut bacteria and a high-fiber diet.

The microbes in your gut need fiber to make SCFAs, so it follows that eating a lot of fiber-rich foods can boost SCFA production and improve energy. Fiber is abundant in whole and minimally processed plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Increase your intake of these foods while decreasing fiber-poor foods like meat and refined carbohydrates to feed the SCFA-producing bacteria in your gut.

Want to give your microbiome even more of a boost? These plant foods are particularly rich in prebiotic fibers that feed good gut bacteria:

Should you take a probiotics supplement to increase energy levels?

Taking a probiotic may help balance your microbiome and support healthy SCFA production as you transition to a high-fiber diet. Studies in humans and mice indicate probiotic strains like Lactobacillus acidophilus NCIMB 30175, Lactobacillus rhamnosus NCIMB 30174, Lactobacillus plantarum NCIMB 30173, and Lactobacillus plantarum P-8 can support SCFA levels, at least in the short term. However, these studies didn’t look at whether the increase in SCFAs also led to an increase in energy.

If you’re transitioning to a fiber-rich diet from a diet high in ultra-processed foods, though, a probiotics supplement may be worth trying. Your microbiome can change quickly in response to new dietary patterns, and probiotics can act as a “bridge” to support SCFA producers in the meantime. Continue to make high-fiber plant foods the staples of your diet to feed those beneficial bacteria, and you may see improved energy levels as a result!

These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.

Featured Products

Vitacost Triple FIber
Renew Life Basic Care Probiotic
Bragg True Energy Apple Cider Vinegar Plus 6 B Vitamins