Weight Watchers recently invited me to speak on fatigue and why we may experience it excessively throughout the day. I think this is such an important topic, because I commonly see patients who question whether the tiredness they feel is normal or not.
Although the root issue is sometimes more apparent, there are always lots of reasons so many of us struggle with restlessness and daytime fatigue.
To help us all live a more full and energized life, let’s talk about what may cause us to feel so tired.
6 Common Reasons That Explain Why We’re So Tired
Before we discuss the many reasons we may experience sleepiness and fatigue, ask yourself if you’ve you tried these techniques:
🔑 An important first step in the quest for a solid night’s sleep is to establish a nightly routine with a lights-out time. And we have to be consistent, so whatever we choose as a part of that routine should be something we do every night.
First, set yourself a bedtime. Aim to get at least six, if not eight, hours of sleep, and keep in mind that this might mean you get into bed 30 minutes prior to the bedtime you set for yourself.
There are many other important steps you can take to help you achieve a restful night’s sleep. For example, you can lower bright lights, put down electronics and turn off the TV at least 30 minutes before you go to bed, and you can limit or eliminate caffeine after lunch to help you fall asleep at your designated bedtime.
Pro-tip: Keep a notepad and pen near your bed. That way, if thoughts pop into your head that you don’t forget, you can just jot them down rather than ruminate on them all night and keep yourself up.
Additionally, make sure you have a comfortable mattress, sheets and blankets that provide the right amount of warmth. Plus a pillow that meets your needs.
If a consistent routine and comfortable setup don’t help you catch more Z’s, here are six common causes of the fatigue we experience during the day, with ways to treat them.
1. Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that poses many potential health risks. Because it causes people to stop breathing repeatedly for brief intervals throughout the night, it prevents them from getting enough oxygen as they sleep. This makes it more difficult for them to achieve the deepest phase of sleep, also known as rapid eye movement (REM), which is the dream stage of sleep.
Those with sleep apnea don’t get the amount of real, quality rest they need, so it’s no wonder they spend their days yawning and craving a nap.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the main types of sleep apnea are:
- Obstructive sleep apnea – Your throat muscles relax.
- Central sleep apnea – Your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing.
- Complex sleep apnea syndrome (or treatment-emergent central sleep apnea) – You have both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.
If you gasp for air as you sleep, waking up with a headache and dry mouth, or struggling to stay asleep, consult your doctor to see if sleep apnea is behind your excessive fatigue.
How to treat it: Doctors typically conduct a noninvasive sleep study test to monitor your breathing throughout the night, which you can do from the comfort of your home. If your doctor prescribes this, they’ll give you a sleep machine to use for two to three nights. Afterward, you’ll return it so your doctor can review the results and properly diagnose your sleeping patterns. If you have sleep apnea, they’ll likely prescribe continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, or a mouth guard to help you manage the symptoms of this condition plus the daytime sleepiness it causes.
2. Vitamin Deficiency
If you’re tired all the time in a way that affects your productivity and the quality of your day, this might be due to a deficiency of the essential vitamins your body needs.
Vitamin D deficiency alone leads to a range of symptoms, such as extreme tiredness and low energy, muscle pain or even depression. It can also amplify symptoms of existing anxiety and depression.
Low levels of vitamin B12, vitamin E, iron, magnesium or potassium lead to symptoms, too, like anemia, bleeding gums or brittle nails. And of course, extreme fatigue.
How to treat it: Your doctor will draw blood to identify the low levels of the vitamins you lack. With the results, they’ll advise you on which supplements to take. You can also increase your intake of certain foods to naturally correct a deficiency. For example, eating liver, egg yolk and oily fish like salmon or sardines may reverse a vitamin D deficiency.
3. Weight Gain + Sedentary Lifestyle
In the hustle of a busy week, it’s hard to prioritize exercise on top of all your other duties. Add COVID to the equation, and it’s the perfect storm of increased food intake and decreased physical activity.
If you’ve lost track of your routine, that’s normal and expected during times of heightened stress and disrupted routines. But we may also gain weight as a result of little to no exercise, which can lead to health issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
Plus, without regular exercise and a healthy diet, we’re more susceptible to low lung capacity and poor air circulation, which reduces our stamina and tires us out more quickly.
With COVID-19 vaccine distribution on the rise (we’ve vaccinated more than 35,000 people at my clinic since January, and The Wall Street Journal reports the U.S. has administered 211.6 million doses!), you may feel more comfortable enjoying socially distant activities like walking around the block, going to the gym or going on a hike. To work out in your home, you can always take advantage of the many exercise apps or videos available online.
💡 Remember Newton’s first law of motion: A body in motion stays in motion, and a body at rest stays at rest. (He says object, I know. But go with it. 😉 )
In fact, this study found an association between physical activity and a reduced risk of experiencing low energy and fatigue when researchers compared active adults to their sedentary peers. Twenty percent of adults worldwide report persistent fatigue, but the studies suggest a strong and consistent relationship between physical activity and feelings of energy and fatigue.
How to treat it: Move as much as you can. A reasonable goal is 150 minutes of intentional activity each week — which is just 30 minutes per day across five days. Weight gain can zap your energy and get you into a rut that’s hard to break, so improve your energy level with light to moderate physical activity, and increase the intensity as you build up your stamina. To form a balanced diet, curb your intake of foods high in sugar, saturated fats and carbohydrates, and eat more avocados, eggs, nuts, fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Fried and sugary foods are fun to eat, but they spike your blood sugar and supply you with short-term energy. Ultimately, you’ll crash and feel sluggish and fatigued.
4. Chronic Stress
Stress isn’t all bad. Our body’s stress response is key for survival, and good stress — like when our pulse quickens due to excitement — makes life more enjoyable. But too much stress can be detrimental.
So, what’s the difference between stress and chronic stress?
👉 Chronic stress is emotional stress that lasts for weeks or months, or when we experience stressors for long periods of time that take a heavy toll on us.
Chronic stress can produce many physical and emotional symptoms that make daily functioning more challenging, such as sleep deprivation and daytime tiredness, heart disease, anxiety, depression, a weakened immune system and high blood pressure.
The pandemic has been a stressful and uncertain experience. For many people, managing work, school childcare, marriage, family issues, their health and more has grown increasingly complex, and that may leave you feeling physically and emotionally exhausted.
This isn’t unusual, and there are ways to ease these stresses. For example, take time for yourself to unwind, soak up the sun, ride a bike or read a book.
How to treat it: To stay mentally strong through stressful times, try to enlist the help of mindfulness practices like meditation and stress management activities like yoga.
5. Health Disorders and Diseases
Our health significantly impacts our ability to feel well-rested and energized. Check with your doctor to see if the reason you’re so tired results from one of these disorders or diseases.
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS): A disease characterized by profound fatigue, sleep abnormalities, pain, and other symptoms for more than six months. Your fatigue worsens with exertion but doesn’t improve with increased rest.
- Diabetes: With this disease, your body doesn’t make enough insulin, which can cause high blood sugar. To deal with your frequent changes in blood sugar levels, your body burns a lot of energy — that affects your concentration and might leave you feeling fatigued and irritable.
- Heart disease: Because of the reduced flow of oxygenated blood to the body’s tissues, it’s common for people with heart diseases like coronary artery disease, arrhythmias or heart valve disease to experience tiredness or weakness.
- Fibromyalgia: Fibromyalgia causes widespread muscle pain and tenderness. This condition affects the muscles and soft tissue, but it can also cause fatigue. Because of the pain, some people with this condition can’t sleep at night. This can lead to daytime sleepiness and fatigue.
- Hypothyroidism: Medline Plus says your thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your throat that produces hormones that control the way your body uses energy. When it doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone, it causes a condition known as hypothyroidism, which can cause exhaustion. If your thyroid overproduces hormones, you may experience restlessness, too.
Depression exacerbates a range of symptoms, and decreased energy or fatigue is definitely one of them. According to the Sleep Foundation, almost all people with depression experience sleep issues.
While everyone experiences depression differently, the National Institute of Mental Health says these are some common symptoms:
- Persistently feeling sad, anxious or empty
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- Low energy or fatigue
- Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Ideation about death or suicide
- Pain, aches, headaches, cramps or digestive problems that don’t have a clear cause or get better with treatment
How to treat it: If you talk to your doctor and discuss treatment options, they may prescribe an antidepressant or an anti-anxiety medication. Mental health counseling could also be very beneficial. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy is a type of treatment that helps correct negative thought patterns that lead to a negative mood and depression.
Besides this, consider starting your days with some structure to give your mind less time to roam negatively.
Will you suddenly stop feeling fatigued after learning more about why you’re so tired? Honestly, no — but we can always get better at managing our health around our hectic lives.
Without quality rest, we just aren’t our best selves. Can we get through the day and run down our to-do list on four hours of sleep? Most likely. Will we present our best selves and be ready to lead with unfoggy brains? Don’t bet on it.
Give your body the rest it deserves — and whatever you do, ignore hustle culture. (In the real world, there’s no such thing as #TeamNoSleep.)
Meet Dr. Savita Ginde
Dr. Savita Ginde is an advocate and thought leader for reproductive health and served as Chief Medical Officer of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains for over 13 years. And, until very recently, she served as the Chief Healthcare Officer for STRIDE Community Health Center where she oversaw all of STRIDE’s healthcare services and led their COVID-19 vaccination efforts.