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central nervous system fatigue: exhausted woman boxing

Is Your Exhaustion Actually Central Nervous System Fatigue?

Exhaustion is an epidemic sweeping the nation. Nearly 14 percent of adults report that they feel ‘very tired’ or ‘exhausted’ the majority of the time, while an estimated 20 to 42 percent suffer from chronic fatigue. Common as feelings of fatigue may be, however, they are not something to ignore. Fatigue is a symptom of several underlying conditions, including one marked by a run-down central nervous system (CNS) called central nervous system fatigue. 

You may not have heard of it, but “central nervous system fatigue is a relatively common condition,” according to Dimitar Marinov M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Medical University in Varna, Bulgaria. “Its exact prevalence, however, is challenging to quantify due to its overlap with other forms of fatigue and the variability in how it’s reported,” he says. The fact that, much like adrenal fatigue and burnout, the condition is rarely offered as an official medical diagnosis adds to a lack of data on just how common it really is. 

Still, it’s a state anyone interested in living a wellness-focused life should know about—especially those who engage in high-intensity physical activities, work long hours, bear a heavy mental load, report frequent bouts of fatigue, and/or experience chronic stress, says Marinov. These folks face a heightened risk of fatiguing their CNS. And, left unchecked and untreated, CNS fatigue can lead to a range of physical, emotional, and mental symptoms about as pleasant as an ongoing colonoscopy, such as poor mood, impaired mental capacity, weight changes, and more. 

But what is the central nervous system and how can it become fatigued? Ahead, everything you need to know about the condition, its causes, and exactly what it takes to recover. 

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERT: Dimitar Marinov M.D., Ph.D., is a physician and assistant professor of epidemiology at the Medical University in Varna, Bulgaria. Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., is a physical therapist and founder of digital movement platform Movement Vault. Courtney Glashow, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist and founder of Anchor Therapy in Hoboken, New Jersey. 

Central Nervous System 101

Before you can understand what it means for the central nervous system to be fatigued, you have to understand its components, as well as what it needs to operate optimally. 

In essence, the central nervous system (CNS) is the body’s master control center, says Marinov. Made up of the brain, spinal cord, and branches of nerves that extend off the spinal cord, the central nervous system regulates most bodily systems, much as a captain controls players on the field, he explains. 

Given the major organs and nerve groups that make up the central nervous system, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that “the CNS is responsible for everything we do,” according to Marinov. “The CNS controls everything from thinking and feeling to movement and sensation,” he says. It also regulates vital functions like breathing, heart rate, and digestion and is integral to the body’s response to stress and recovery from it.

When The Central Nervous System Malfunctions

Generally, the central nervous system operates optimally without human intervention. “It functions in the background automatically, without requiring forethought or mental initiative,” says physical therapist and founder of digital movement platform Movement Vault Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., who regularly works with individuals with CNS fatigue. In practice, this means that people can move, think, experience all five senses, and more without a second thought. It all just happens.

However, any issue with any of the various components of the central nervous system—be it a spinal cord injury, headache or head trauma, or nerve degenerative issue—can lead to central nervous system disorder and/or dysfunction, per The National Health Services. In response, everything from memory retention and speech to muscle maintenance and movement can become laborious if not impossible. 

Thing is, the central nervous system doesn’t just malfunction when its various parts have been injured or a neurodegenerative disease is at play. The central nervous system itself can actually become so strained that it begins to malfunction. This is central nervous system fatigue. 

What Is Central Nervous System Fatigue, Exactly? 

Central nervous system fatigue refers to the specific dysfunction of the central nervous system that results from something we all experience: stress. More specifically, prolonged, chronic stress paired with inadequate recovery and nourishment, says psychotherapist Courtney Glashow, L.C.S.W., founder of Anchor Therapy in Hoboken, New Jersey. 

Central nervous system fatigue is a condition that adheres to the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ principle. Some stress is a-okay, and even healthy, explains Wickham. After all, the stress response releases chemicals into the body that support cell rejuvenation, protein (and muscle) synthesis, and overall immunity. However, “if the amount of stress is not dosed appropriately and is more than you can physiologically handle during a given period, things can go south,” he says. 

The factors that contribute to excess stress aren’t always grandiose, either. You don’t have to be training for an ultra-marathon race or pulling all-nighters at work to be a candidate for central nervous system fatigue. “The day-to-day stress of work pressure, social media notifications, financial demands, and relationship tensions can all add up to be too much of an individual’s stress bucket, and cause the metaphorical bucket to overflow,” he explains. 

Read More: 6 Physical Signs You’re Way Too Stressed

Big or small, research shows that each of these stressors activates the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls the body’s endocrine (a.k.a. hormonal) system. The HPA axis is a central part of the body’s stress response, explains Marinov, and whenever the HPA axis gets stimulated by internal or external stress, the central nervous system gets stimulated, too. 

How this plays out: When the HPA is chronically overstimulated, the body produces consistently high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, says Marinov. This leads to everything from alterations in neurotransmitter levels and changes in neuronal activity (among many other things), all of which diminish the central nervous system’s capacity to function effectively and efficiently.

When this happens, the CNS is less able to handle mental, emotional, and physical stress, which ultimately means you can’t handle stress, Marinov says. As a result, you experience a wide range of health issues associated with central nervous system fatigue.  

The Symptoms Of Central Nervous System Fatigue 

A full-body state of exhaustion, CNS fatigue manifests as a type of lethargy that cannot be alleviated by rest and sleep alone, says Marinov. Indeed, the hallmark symptom of central nervous system fatigue is, as the name suggests, a feeling of fatigue—and one so intense that many liken it to the flu, adds Wickham.

On the mental front, it is also common for individuals to feel distractible, have a hard time concentrating, and experience brain fog, says Marinov. Emotionally, they may be more irritable, feel less motivated (for instance, in the gym or at work), or have mood swings and a generally short temper, he says. 

“Headaches, muscle weakness, muscle aches, prolonged soreness, and trouble falling asleep and staying asleep are also symptoms of central nervous system fatigue,” Marinov says. Given that the central nervous system controls our motor function, its fatigue can also lead to a general experience of clumsiness and lack of balance. 

Because central nervous system fatigue is marked by an overflow of cortisol and the entire endocrine system is interconnected, Wickham says that individuals can also experience symptoms associated with other hormone disorders, such as low testosterone, estrogen dominance, and more. “Low libido, erectile dysfunction, alterations in body hair density, body composition changes, and weight gain are all symptoms of nervous system fatigue,” he says. 

CNS Fatigue Vs. Burnout Vs. Overtraining vs. Adrenal Fatigue

Central nervous system fatigue often presents with symptoms that are similar to those associated with burnout, as well as those associated with overtraining syndrome and adrenal fatigue. However, all four of the conditions are different, according to Marinov.  

Quick refresher: Burnout refers to chronic work-related fatigue, overtraining syndrome is a condition caused by too much exercise and too little rest, and adrenal fatigue is a condition specifically marked by the adrenal glands under-performing in response to chronic stress, he explains. 

The symptoms of burnout are primarily marked by mental and emotional fatigue, while the symptoms of overtraining syndrome are primarily marked by physical fatigue, explains Marinov. What separates central nervous system fatigue from these is that it can, and often does, manifest with all three: Mental, physical, and emotional fatigue. As such, in many ways, central nervous fatigue can be understood as the worst of both worlds. 

While there may be some overlap in the experiences of adrenal fatigue and CNS fatigue, given how interrelated these body systems are, adrenal fatigue is often identified by reliance on stimulants like caffeine and a general feeling of overwhelm that may not be present in CNS fatigue, according to Marinov.

The treatments for burnout, overtraining syndrome, and adrenal fatigue alone won’t help an individual adequately recover from CNS fatigue, Marinov says.

How To Recover From Central Nervous System Fatigue 

Don’t worry, you’re not sunk yet! With time, care, and perhaps a little help, you can kick CNS fatigue and get back to feeling like your most vibrant self. Here’s how.

1. First, work with a healthcare provider

If you are experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms of central nervous system fatigue, your first step should be to consult a healthcare professional. Ideally, an endocrinologist or other hormone specialist, or a holistic healthcare provider would be your go-to’s here. 

Central nervous system fatigue is not something you should try to treat on your own at home through just rest and other stress-reducing measures, says Marinov. Because the central nervous system is the control system for your entire body, its dysfunction could contribute to other health concerns that require intervention, such as significant depression, anxiety, and muscle weakness, he says.  

Since no single test can confirm central nervous system fatigue, a knowledgeable healthcare provider will perform a series of physical examinations, blood, and/or urine tests, as well as cognitive examinations to discern if something is out of whack with your CNS, notes Wickham. Low scores on reaction-time or memory tests, high cortisol levels, the disruption of hormones like testosterone and estrogen, and weak grip strength test results can all indicate CNS fatigue. 

2. Strike a better stress balance

Since central nervous system fatigue is a condition marked by excess stress, Glashow says that “prioritizing stress-reduction techniques such as meditation and deep breathing exercises is key.” Volunteering, stretching, doing Tai Chi, dancing, and writing a gratitude list may also help reduce overall stress, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

That said, don’t limit yourself to these often-referenced methods of stress reduction if they don’t resonate, suggests Wickham. “Ultimately, you want to do what is stress relieving for you,” he says. Be it grounding or nature walks, trying a new dessert recipe, or learning to crochet, what’s more important than the actual activity is the way you feel during and after it. 

Don’t stop at adding stress-reducers to your routine, though. “You always want to evaluate your life and see what kind of stressors you can remove, too,” says Wickham. That may mean dedicating less time to friendships and other interpersonal relationships that drain (rather than fill) your energy cup, he says. That may also mean working with HR or your boss to establish better work-life boundaries and expectations, if needed. 

Working with a therapist or other mental health provider can be beneficial for identifying key stresses in your life, as well as coming up with a game plan for eliminating them, notes Glashow. 

3. Become a sleep Master 

“Sleep—particularly deep sleep—is very important for CNS fatigue recovery,” says Glashow. “That’s because sleep is when the brain and body gets to rest, repair, and replenish your energy.” Sound sleep has been shown to support nerve function, which impacts the CNS function as nerves make up the CNS. Meanwhile, inadequate sleep has been linked with a heightened risk for cortisol (stress) imbalance and HPA axis impairment, as well as elevated sympathetic nervous system activity, all of which can increase the risk of CNS fatigue. 

For individuals looking to heal from CNS fatigue, Marinov recommends a minimum of eight hours of sleep per night. Unfortunately, because CNS fatigue has been shown to interfere with sleep quality, logging that many hours in the hay requires extra vigilance. Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, minimizing exposure to screens before bed, crafting a comfortable sleep environment, and otherwise improving sleep hygiene can all help counteract these sleep disruptions and put you on the path of healing, says Glashow.

If you get the go-ahead from your healthcare provider, a sleep-supporting supplement—such as magnesium or lemon balm—can come in handy here. (This guide can help you find the best option for your unique sleep needs.)

4. Edit your exercise routine 

There’s no doubt that, broadly speaking, exercise is good for you! However, “exercise is a stressor on the body,” says Wickham. After all, both aerobic and anaerobic modalities alike have been shown to lead to a slight, momentary spike in cortisol, he says. 

When the central nervous system is working optimally, the body can handle this slight spike and bring levels back to equilibrium, he says. However, when fatigued, the CNS can’t manage that exercise-induced stress, and working out will continue to run your body down, leaving you feeling worse and worse.

Exactly how much you need to scale down your exercise routine will vary, based on the extent of your fatigue and previous training schedule. But as a general rule, Wickham says individuals should take one or two weeks fully off from exercise to support recovery. From there, return to no more than fifty percent of your previous training load and increase or decrease the demand based on what you can handle. 

For people with specific exercise goals or a deep commitment to fitness, paring down their time in the gym or running shoes may not appeal. However, “scaling back workout intensity and duration is key to CNS fatigue recovery,” says Wickham. 

5. Nourish your body 

“During CNS fatigue, maintaining a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats is crucial,” says Marinov. The vitamins and minerals in these health-forward foods all support overall system function, as well as limit systemic inflammation that can prolong recovery. It’s also essential to avoid or limit the intake of alcohol and drugs, as they can interfere with sleep quality and stress management, exacerbating CNS fatigue, he says. 

“There’s no single magic bullet supplement for CNS fatigue, but people with it might also consider supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and B vitamins,” says Marinov. These nutrients have all been shown to support nervous system health. Otherwise, adding in adaptogens (such as ashwagandha) can help the body adapt to stress and therefore may also be helpful for healing from CNS fatigue, he says.

Of course, “you should always discuss any supplements you’re considering taking with a healthcare provider before taking to ensure safety and avoid interactions with medications,” Marinov notes. Ideally, whatever health pro you’re working with to address your CNS fatigue will be able to help you craft a useful supplement stack for your needs.

How Long Does It Take To Recover From CNS Fatigue?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer here. “Recovery time depends on the severity of fatigue, as well as other health factors impacting the individual,” says Glashow. “It could range from weeks to months.” The variance in the time it takes to heal from CNS fatigue may be frustrating for individuals experiencing it, but recovery is possible!

As Wickham puts it, the central nervous system doesn’t “break” in a single day, nor will it repair that quickly. But with proper care and lifestyle interventions, recovery from CNS fatigue is possible, he says. 

Of course, once your CNS is back on track and no longer hampered by fatigue, it’s important to protect its overall health and well-being by maintaining sound sleep hygiene, finding ways to manage and minimize day-to-day stress, and nourishing your body with nutrient-dense foods. 

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