Are you exhausted all the time despite how much sleep you get? While it’s perfectly normal to experience periods of physical and mental fatigue on occasion, it becomes problematic when tiredness persists without an obvious cause and interferes with your ability to enjoy life.
What is Fatigue?
Manifesting itself as physical weariness and/or mental exhaustion, fatigue is generally described as feelings of low energy and motivation, weakness in the body, and an inability to concentrate. Although there is a distinction between muscle fatigue (from vigorous exercise) and cognitive fatigue (from performing mentally taxing tasks), normally these are quickly alleviated by rest.
Fatigue is considered prolonged when feelings of exhaustion are pervasive – lasting a month or more – and are not clearly a result of physical or mental activity. Often, people who feel mentally tired feel physically tired too, and vice versa.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, at any given time 20% of people feel inexplicably tired and 10% suffer from prolonged fatigue. The causes of persistent fatigue have been associated with lifestyle as well as emotional distress, but it can also be a symptom of a more serious medical condition. If feelings of fatigue endure for more than six consecutive months – a condition called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – and you are also experiencing muscle pain, sore throat, tender lymph nodes, headaches, short-term memory loss, painful joints, and not refreshing sleep, it is time to see a health care practitioner.
1. Disrupted Sleep Cycles
Yes, it’s probably pretty self-evident that lack of sleep and tiredness go hand in hand. The National Sleep Foundation recommends between seven and nine hours of sleep per night for those aged 18 to 64 years old, but according to a 2013 Gallup Poll, 40% of Americans are getting only six hours or less every night.
Trimming an hour or two from your daily sleep cycle leads to a phenomenon called “sleep debt” whereby lost sleep hours accumulate over time leading to fatigue in the short-term and, as the sleep deficit mounts over many years, a greater risk for stroke, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes in the long-term.
Just one week of sleep deprivation can change your genes. It can also cause brain deterioration, resulting in permanent memory loss and cognitive deficiencies. And if that’s not frightening enough, lack of sleep has been shown to bring about depression, induce weight gain, and can even lead to a premature demise.
Getting a good night’s sleep should really be a priority. Here are a few tips:
Respect the circadian rhythm – Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, regardless of whether you feel tired or not – even on the weekends.
Turn off electronics – Blue light emitted from computers, TVs, phones, and other devices disrupts melatonin production.
Shut out the light – You’ll get much better sleep in a dark room so invest in heavy curtains or a sleep mask.
Comfortable bedding – If you wake up each morning with aches and pains, your mattress and pillows could be preventing you from getting a restful sleep.
Don’t eat before bedtime – Eat your last meal of the day at least two hours before hitting the sheets.
Keep a journal – If you have difficulty falling asleep because you can’t turn your mind off, try writing down what’s bothering you.
Repay your sleep debt – Catch up on lost zzz’s by adding a couple hours of bed rest each night on the weekend if you missed out on five hours over the course of the work week. For longer-term debts, it could take a few months of extra slumber hours to return to a healthy sleep pattern.
Invest in a Himalayan salt lamp – Allowing a Himalayan salt lamp to work its magic throughout the day is a great way to improve sleep. You can turn it off when you go to bed so you can still sleep in the dark. Read about the science of how this helps here, and then you can buy a Himalayan salt lamp from here.
2. Skipping Breakfast
It’s dubbed the most important meal of the day and with good reason – eating breakfast every day has been proven again and again to have significant benefits for the body and the mind. Not eating breakfast, though, has been linked to high blood pressure, weight gain, coronary heart disease, reduced cognitive performance, and low mood. And yet, according to a study by The NPD Group, 31 million Americans – or 10% of the population – are regular breakfast-skippers.
When you struggle with fatigue, passing up breakfast is akin to running on empty – there is no fuel in your system to keep your energy levels up. Glucose – the body’s source of energy – is released slowly during the fasting of sleep to maintain stable blood sugar levels overnight. Come morning, once glucose stored in muscle tissues and the liver are depleted, energy is taken from fatty acids instead which results in lower energy levels. The simple act of eating breakfast replenishes your glucose stores, giving your body the boost it needs to get through the day.
In addition to overall physical energy, eating breakfast is a boon for mental health. Evidence from a battery of studies have consistently shown that breakfast improves brain function, memory, and academic performance, especially so in children and adolescents. Eating a low-fat, high carb breakfast improves mood and reduces mental fatigue.
Just not a breakfast person? Try these tips to increase your morning food intake:
Start small – Light, easy to digest foods in small portions (think yogurt, bananas, granola bars) are good ways to begin introducing some sustenance to your morning routine.
Break it up – You don’t need to sit down to a towering plate of pancakes and eat it all in one sitting. Try breaking up a large meal into smaller snacks and chow down intermittently throughout the A.M. hours.
Get the most bang for your buck – As mentioned above, high carb, low-fat breakfasts are great mind boosters so try to eat fat-free yogurt, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and egg whites.
Plan ahead – Many don’t eat breakfast because there isn’t enough time in the morning, but with a little preparation you can make some room for this meal. Pick out what you’ll eat the night before or wake up 15 minutes earlier than usual – but be sure to add in those extra minutes awake to your bedtime sleep.
Make it a habit – It takes on average 66 days to make a new behavior a habit, so eating breakfast should come naturally in about two months’ time.
3. Sugary Diet
Dubbed the new silent killer, the sweet stuff affects us on a much greater scale than merely a larger waistline. You may already know that consuming excessive amounts of sugar isn’t good for you, but the extent of the damage it wreaks is really quite shocking. From cardiovascular disease, organ damage, hormone imbalance, tooth decay, and obesity, a diet high in added sugars also plays an important role in physical and mental exhaustion.
Reaching for a sugary treat might help beat the mid-afternoon slump quickly, but sugar actually decreases the activity of orexin cells – neurons responsible for regulating alertness and hunger. An increase in orexin levels translates to more physical activity while lower levels leads to lethargy. This process won’t happen overnight, but a daily dose of sweets will steadily erode orexin levels and leave you feeling sleepy and unmotivated.
Other research on the impact sugars have on mental function is equally startling. One study found that a diet high in fructose impairs cognitive abilities by slowing the brain down, impeding learning, and stymieing memory. And the scary part: these cognitive deficits can occur in as little as six weeks!
The American Heart Association recommends limiting sugar intake to 100 calories per day for women (six teaspoons) and 150 per day for men (nine teaspoons), but consider that a single can of Coca-Cola contains nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar. And while sugary drinks and treats are the more obvious places to expect added sugars, many foods – like salad dressing, sauces, bread, and canned fruit – have lots of hidden sugars.
It might not be easy but quitting sugar could be one of the best things you can do to improve your overall health. In lieu of the chocolate bar pick-me-up, try eating healthy energy-boosting snacks that are high in protein, fiber, antioxidants, omega-3s, and magnesium:
Almonds, cashews, and other nuts
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Beans and lentils
4. Nutrient Deficiencies
Causing fatigue, weakness, and poor concentration, anemia is a condition that develops when there isn’t enough red blood cells present in the blood to carry a sufficient amount of oxygen to bodily tissues. There are more than 400 types of anemia but the most common kinds are caused by iron and vitamin deficiencies. Affecting about 3.5 million Americans, the early symptoms of anemia are subtle but will worsen over time.
To treat and prevent nutrient deficiency anemias, your diet should include:
Iron – Meat and fish, beans, lentils, tofu, eggs, nuts, spinach, and nuts
Folate – Citrus fruits, legumes, cereals, pastas, bananas, peas, and edamame
Vitamin B12 – Dairy, soy, meat, and eggs
Vitamin C – Bell peppers, guava, papaya, broccoli, kiwi, oranges, and cantaloupe
5. Not Enough Exercise
That you should be working out when you’re already exhausted in order to boost your energy levels is counterintuitive indeed. But it’s also true. Analyzing 70 studies that involved 6,807 sedentary participants who suffered from persistent fatigue, researchers found that over 90% of the studies drew the same conclusion: people who exercised regularly reported increased energy.
Delving deeper into this finding, another study was conducted which involved 36 otherwise healthy young adults who were experiencing prolonged fatigue. After six weeks of either low or moderate aerobic exercise three times per week, the subjects consistently reported higher energy levels. Between the two groups, those who completed low-intensity workouts reaped the greatest benefits for reducing fatigue.
Here are some low-impact ways to get up and get moving:
Walking – There are lots of opportunities to take a few extra steps each day. Park your car farther away from your destination, get off the bus a stop or two sooner, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and get into the routine of an after dinner stroll.
Yoga – Good for the mind, body, and spirit, start by mastering these yoga poses.
Swimming – There are plenty of great reasons to get in the pool, not the least of which is that swimming is just plain fun!
Dancing – Sometimes the best kind of exercise is the kind that doesn’t feel like it’s exercise, so crank up the tunes and dance like nobody’s watching.
It’s completely natural to feel sadness as a response to life’s struggles, but if feelings of listlessness, despair, or melancholy last for more than two weeks you may be suffering from depression. Affecting one in 10 Americans, depression can range from mild to severe and often includes symptoms of low energy, slowed thinking, as well as sleeping too much or too little.
Fatigue and depression are deeply intertwined with either state fuelling the other. One study observed that people who are depressed are four times more likely to feel fatigued, and people who suffer from fatigue are three times as likely to become depressed.
Take this depression self-help assessment to find out if you are experiencing some of the signs of depression.
Depression tends to make people feel overwhelmed by even the most routine of tasks, but there are small steps you can take that will help you feel better:
Seek support from people you trust – Depression can be isolating which usually makes the symptoms worse. Family and friends can be powerful social supports who can talk you through your feelings and let you know that you are not alone.
Try to get some exercise – Physical activity releases endorphins that uplift mood. Even taking a short 10 minute walk will help ease negative feelings and allow you to cope in a healthy way.
Challenge how you think – Depression is usually coupled with a one-sided, negative view of the world. How you think is how you feel, so try to challenge your thinking patterns to achieve a more balanced perspective.
Change your diet – Added sugars and refined carbohydrates will sap your energy so try to eat mood-boosting foods like citrus, bananas, spinach, brown rice, whole grains, and poultry.
See a doctor – If making healthy lifestyle changes doesn’t help curb your depression, it’s time to see a professional. Here are some tips on how to choose the right therapist.
7. Problems with your Thyroid
Found in the neck, the thyroid gland releases hormones that control how your body uses food for energy. Hyperthyroidism (or an overactive thyroid) occurs when your thyroid produces the hormone thyroxine in excess, while hypothyroidism (or an under active thyroid) develops when it produces too little. Both conditions share the symptoms of fatigue and muscle weakness.
Thyroid disorders are very treatable and can be quickly diagnosed with a simple blood test. It is recommended that anyone who is feeling prolonged fatigue and weakness should see a physician to, at the very least, rule out a thyroid issue. Although treatments span taking daily hormone supplements, anti-thyroid medications, or surgery, take few minutes to read some tips on how to heal thyroid problems naturally and discuss these options with your doctor.
Tiredness, irritability, and poor concentration are signs that you may not be getting enough fluids. Each day, water in the body is lost through breathing, sweating, urination, and bowel movements and needs to be replaced with liquids from food and drink.
Ordinarily, feeling thirsty is the body’s way of telling us it’s time to take a drink but this is not always accurate. A better way to judge whether you are losing fluids faster than you are taking them in is to look at your urine. If it is light in color or clear, you are hydrated; if it is dark yellow, you are probably dehydrated.
The amount of fluids you should consume every day depends on how physically active you are and whether you reside in hotter environments. The general rule of thumb, according to the Institute of Medicine, is 2.7 liters for women and 3.7 liters for men.
Here are three ways to make sure you’re getting as much fluids as possible every day:
Eat it – If you dislike the taste of flavorless water, you can replenish fluids by eating foods with a high water content. These include cucumbers, watermelon, strawberries, grapefruit, celery, lettuce, tomatoes, grapes, and zucchini.
Be consistent – Drink a glass of water each day at the same time and place – when you wake up in the morning and right before bed, for example. Give yourself visual cues to remember to drink by leaving a cup by your nightstand or near the coffeemaker in the morning.
Think outside H₂O – Water has some amazing health benefits but there are other beverages that might be a bit more appealing. Alternatives like coconut water, tea, vegetable juice, lemon water, and skim milk are equally as hydrating as plain aqua.
9. Too Much Caffeine
There are gobs of excellent, healthful reasons to drink coffee each and every day, but if your java habit exceeds four 8-ounce cups daily, all the positive gains in health are flipped on the inverse. Research published in 2013 found that those under the age of 55 who drank more than 28 cups of coffee per week had a 56% increase in the risk of death from all causes.
Coffee, and its other caffeine-laden cohorts, does initially act as a stimulant that can help temporarily relieve drowsiness. When caffeine is overused, however, it becomes a depressant. Called “caffeine abuse” by the medical community, consuming too much of it leads to fatigue. Complicating matters further is the fact that relying on caffeine to jolt us into wakefulness builds up a tolerance to its effects. We often need more and more of it to pack the same punch that a cup or two once did. And more caffeine will only exacerbate the feelings of fatigue.
Depending on something so much to get us through the day is never a good thing. To reduce caffeine overload, try to eliminate as many sources of caffeine as you can. This doesn’t necessarily mean going cold turkey but there are lots of places that caffeine hides you wouldn’t expect.
10. Food Intolerance
If you’ve noticed that you feel sleepy ten to 30 minutes after eating certain foods, you may have an undiagnosed food allergy or intolerance to a specific type of food.
There is a marked difference between allergy and intolerance. Food allergies are an immune response when the body fights off a particular food that it perceives as harmful. The most common reactions involve swelling, difficulty breathing, chest pain, eczema, and dizziness.
Food intolerance, conversely, is a heightened sensitivity to a type of food. Generally it is caused by a lack of digestive enzymes in the stomach which prevent the food from being properly absorbed. Symptoms of food intolerance include bloating, headaches, and heartburn. Although food allergies tend to be more severe, both of these conditions have symptoms of stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue in common.
If you believe that a food intolerance might be contributing to your feelings of fatigue, you can try an elimination diet to identify the offending foods. Discuss this with your doctor first since eliminating core food groups carries the risk of not receiving adequate nutrition. Elimination diets can be challenging and inconvenient, but here are the basic steps:
Stop eating all suspicious foods for three weeks, or until symptoms improve
Keep a food diary to track your progress
Carefully read the nutritional information labels so you don’t mistakenly consume ingredients you are trying to avoid
When symptoms improve, slowly reintroduce the food groups you were avoiding, one at a time and slowly over time, and write down any changes you observe