Maybe you’re dragging through the day or just have moments of intense fatigue. You could feel like you need a nap at 9 a.m. even though you’re on your third cup of coffee, or maybe you’re “wired but tired” when your brain is zippy but your body is depleted.
Although all of these situations could be caused by sleep issues, there might be other factors at play, too.
There are different “kinds” of tired — from the low-level drowsy feeling you get when you’re bored to that bone-deep exhaustion that comes with chronic stress — and knowing what may be causing your type of tiredness is helpful for addressing it.
Here are some potential reasons to consider:
The world is challenging right now, and that’s an incredible understatement. There are so many different issues — politics, health, employment, just to name the big ones — and that can cause a high level of uncertainty, according to Cheryl Carmin, PhD, a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“We crave predictability, we’re hardwired for that, and we’re also resistant to change,” she says. “Learning to handle discomfort and disruption is valuable for becoming more resilient, but everyone has a limit. When you’re dealing with multiple types of stressors, of course it’s going to wear you down.”
Part of that is because your stress hormone, cortisol, elevates when there’s a threat. So, if you’re seeing everything as a threat, that causes your body to send out other hormones, like adrenaline, designed to make you act quickly. Unfortunately, this can have a ripple effect and cause poor sleep, low energy and hypersensitivity to stressors.
If you feel your stress is stuck in the “on” position at all times, find opportunities to step away for a break every day, Carmin suggests. Best of all, create a schedule and stick to it. That gives your brain the predictability it craves, and provides a downshift that helps your hormone regulation. Try deep breathing exercises, a short yoga sequence, anything that helps you feel more settled. Carmin says that can often help you come back feeling less tired and more energized.
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Tiredness can sometimes be a sign of some other, more serious cause — and hormones might play a role here, too, because many people with thyroid conditions find they struggle with energy balance.
But that’s far from the only condition that has fatigue as a side effect. Cardiovascular issues often have tiredness as one of the major symptoms, says Dr. Adriana Quinones-Camacho, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Health in New York.
“When the heart is stressed, your body channels all its resources to vital functions, including the brain,” he says. “That diverts blood away from the muscles, so you might feel heaviness in your arms and legs, and that causes you to feel weak and tired overall.”
Other conditions that could be causing fatigue are depression, fibromyalgia, anemia, autoimmune disorders, liver disease, cancer, kidney disease and others. Even an issue that’s milder, like allergies, can cause tiredness because your body is working harder to find a balance.
When you already feel tired, you may opt to avoid working out or exercise at a lower intensity than you could. Unfortunately, this becomes a tiredness-inducing cycle, because staying sedentary or just doing the minimum can make you even more fatigued.
“Even when people think exercise isn’t worth it or won’t help, it’s worth giving it a try because it almost always increases energy levels, and often very quickly,” says Tim Puetz, PhD, a researcher in the department of kinesiology at the University of Georgia. “We have a tendency to believe exercise will make us even more tired when the opposite is true.”
You don’t have to do much to get the benefit, either, he adds. Even 15–20 minutes of low-intensity exercising, like taking a brisk walk, can be enough to produce significant changes in energy and help you perk up.
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If your stress isn’t sky-high, your exercise schedule is consistent, and there are no medical issues, you may want to take a look at what’s on your plate.
For many people, regular consumption of processed foods, refined carbs and added sugar cause a rollercoaster effect on blood sugar, says Dr. Elson Haas, author of “Staying Healthy With Nutrition.” You might feel energetic after eating these foods, but the rebound effect that comes with fast digestion can cause blood sugar to crash.
“This is when you get that tired feeling and slow brain, and it seems like you’re mentally exhausted,” he says. “That’s your body trying to adjust blood sugar levels and you’re dragging for a while until it does. Or you might eat more as a ‘pick me up’ and just make it worse.”
A better approach would be concentrating on foods that take longer to digest — vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts, for example — which tends to keep your blood sugar steady.
If you’re experiencing chronic, ongoing tiredness in some form and strategies like taking a break, getting exercise, staying hydrated and eating healthy meals aren’t helping, consider talking with your doctor, suggests Quinones-Camacho. That way, you can rule out a potential medical issue, or change medication you’re on that might be exacerbating the problem. And as always, practice good sleep hygiene so you can stay on track with getting quality shuteye.
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