Fatigue: whether working from an office or from home, transferring kids from place to place, or just keeping up with a busy social schedule, it can hit any one of us. Virtually all of us are familiar with struggling to wake up in the morning or fighting an afternoon slump. Yet you may be asking what are the reasons you’re tired? And is your fatigue normal?
If fatigue isn’t interfering with your normal life, and it’s easily explainable (e.g., you woke up several times throughout the night), then you may think it’s no big deal. And you’re probably right, especially if it’s short-lived.
If on the other hand, you feel like you’re tired more often than you think you should be, here are some of the most common reasons, and more importantly, what to do to recharge your body’s battery.
8 Reasons You’re Tired
1. You’re Seriously Stressed
Stress can be a natural, healthy, normal part of life. But if you find yourself always under the gun, burning the candle at both ends, or juggling too many responsibilities… Or you’re going through major life changes—such as losing a loved one or a job or going through a breakup… Or, say, there’s a global pandemic, outrage discourse driving divisions—real and imagined, 1 and social isolation, you could be flooding your body with the stress hormone cortisol.
Cortisol itself isn’t bad, per se. In fact, cortisol helps regulate the immune system, metabolism, and inflammation. It also, however, has a big role in the body’s response to stress and overwhelm. And when we just can’t get a break (or don’t give ourselves one), we can become chronically stressed.
Once stress—and excess cortisol—becomes chronic, it can become a problem. And a big drawback of chronically high levels of cortisol is that it can contribute to mid-day energy crashes and fatigue.
- Decrease clutter—just the act of cleaning up your home and office can help provide more peace and clarity and can thus increase energy levels. (Plus, your space will look neater and provide a sense of openness for greater opportunities and experiences.)
- Create healthy boundaries, especially around negative or draining relationships.
- Seek more joy and happiness in the little things.
- Exercise to destress—go for a walk, lift some weights, or sweat it out with cardio or HIIT.
- Cultivate gratitude and mindfulness practices.
- Remember that even positive changes—such as getting married, moving, graduating, or getting a new job—can cause stress, so prepare appropriately.
2. You Drink Too Much Coffee
Wait, what? Isn’t coffee a stimulant that gives you energy?
Well…yes and no. The “right” amount of caffeine can help you wake up to take on a full-day’s to-do list. In moderation, the caffeine found in your favorite cup o’ joe can provide a quick energy boost. This explains why coffee is the second most consumed beverage worldwide. (Number one is water.)
On the other hand, caffeine is found in a wide array of foods and drinks, and beyond your daily coffee, it can also be found in tea, soda, energy drinks, pre-workouts, dark chocolate, and even some medications. Too much of a good thing can be exhausting. This is especially true if you caff-up in the late afternoon or evening, which can lead to a whole chemical cascade in the body surrounding the brain chemical adenosine.
In short, caffeine can bind to adenosine receptors. This tricks the body into feeling energized. But once that wears off, we can experience the depletion of energy. This is otherwise known as the caffeine crash. And it can lead to a vicious cycle of needing caffeine but that caffeine crash leading to even lower energy levels leading to more caffeine consumption which then interferes with a good night’s sleep. (It’s tiring just to think about it!)
- Limit coffee consumption to just two or three (max) cups per day.
- Avoid all caffeine consumption at least six hours before sleep.
- Drink more water instead.
- If you want a hot beverage in the evening, sip on a nice herbal tea.
3. You Don’t Drink Enough Water
Hydration is key to maintaining energy levels. Being even mildly dehydrated can lead to decreased energy and feeling fatigued. It can also lead to brain fog, decreased concentration, and lowered mood. 2, 3
- Drink more water. How much you need can depend on your activity levels, your age, gender, and even your weight. The simplest solution may be to just bring a refillable water bottle with you wherever you go to sip on throughout the day and especially after you’ve been active.
4. You Spend Too Much Time Staring at a Screen
Many of us spend our days focused on a computer screen for work and our off time checking social media, reading online articles, or watching TV.
Screens—big and small—are a necessary part of life. But if you find yourself staring at a screen late at night, it could be one of the top reasons you feel tired so often.
You see, the blue light from these screens can suppress melatonin levels. Melatonin is a key hormone in the body. And one of its most well-known effects is for helping us feel tired when it’s time to sleep. If we don’t have enough, then it can decrease the time spent in REM sleep. And REM is critical for cognitive functioning during the day.
Another drawback of too much screen time is eyestrain. Staring at the tiny pixels on our screens can lead to our eyes becoming dry, droopy, and downright fatigued.
- Give your eyes a break throughout the day. For example, follow the 20-20-20 rule. That is, every 20 minutes of screen time, look away at something that is 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
- Turn on a timer, so every night at least one hour before bedtime, you can put down your phone or tablet and turn off the TV or computer. If it helps, you can also put your internet connection on a timer to turn off for the night at a specific time. For example, if you go to sleep at 11 p.m., you would turn off your devices by 10 p.m.
- If you must use electronics before bed, consider investing in some blue-light blocking glasses or screens or, at the very least, set your phone, tablet, or computer to night mode every evening (better yet, set up your devices to turn to night mode automatically).
5. You Eat Too Much Junk Food
Food is supposed to fuel your busy day and keep you energized. But of course, we know that not all food is created equal. Healthy, nutrient-rich, whole-food options can provide long-lasting energy. Highly processed, low-nutrient junk foods may provide a burst of energy followed by a crash that can last much of the day.
- Replace sugary cereals or pastries at breakfast with nutrient-rich wholesome eggs, oats, or smoothies to power up your morning.
- Replace refined carbs (like white bread or pasta) with complex, slow-release carbs like quinoa; vegetables like sweet potatoes, squash, or carrots; legumes like lentils or black beans; or fruits like plums, grapefruit, and peaches.
- Replace the afternoon sugar rush of your typical latte or sweet treat with a piece of fruit and some nuts.
- Replace typical snacks of chips with some sliced veggies and hummus, celery with natural nut butter, or some fiber-rich popcorn or edamame.
6. You’re Not Eating Enough
Whether you’re too busy during the day, you’re trying to lose weight, or you’re just not hungry, if you don’t fuel your body with enough calories, you’ll likely hit a wall and feel exhausted. This can also happen if you’re getting enough calories, but you’re waiting too long between meals. Skipped meals can lead to decreased blood sugar level, which can lead to decreased energy levels.
Your body needs calories even when you’re not doing much as you still breathe, maintain body temperature, and more. In fact, a good 20% of the energy we consume fuels brain metabolism, and the largest calorie cost is the basal metabolic rate.
If you aren’t eating enough, you can also risk not getting enough key energy-supporting nutrients like vitamin D and iron.
- The average person needs to consume at least 1,200 calories per day to ensure the metabolism doesn’t slow.
- While dietary needs do decrease with age, if you are experiencing fatigue, you may need to increase calories to ensure your body has the nutrition it needs to perform normal functions. 4
- Ensure you are getting enough protein as protein, such as meat, fish, eggs, and beans, not only increases metabolic rate, it may also help provide long-lasting energy. 5 So, include quality protein foods with every meal.
- If you find you regularly hit a wall between meals, a healthy, energy-boosting snack may help. Try nibbling on some fruit and nuts or having a quality protein smoothie, for example, to see if that doesn’t give you the boost you need.
- Maintain a healthy weight—people who are underweight or overweight tend to easily tire.
7. You’re a Couch Potato
While you may feel like you just don’t have the energy to exercise, too little exercise could actually be the primary cause of your fatigue. In fact, research has found that increasing activity levels can increase energy levels for both healthy folks 6 and those who are combating disease. And even just slightly increasing physical activity can be beneficial. 7, 8
- Find ways to move throughout the day: stand rather than sit, take the stairs rather than an elevator or escalator, and walk or ride your bike for errands when possible.
- Take walking breaks throughout the day—the fresh air and movement may energize you way more than a cup of coffee.
- Exercise—both cardio and weight lifting—regularly and consistently. However, keep in mind that overexercising or pushing too hard can also lead to feeling tired.
- Avoid exercising at least four hours before bedtime as the energy increase you enjoy from the activity could make falling asleep more difficult.
8. Sleep is Elusive
If you’re not getting enough quality ZZZs, then it only makes sense you’ll be fatigued throughout the day. It’s obvious. Sleep is when your mind stores memories and your body releases key hormones for the regulation of metabolism and energy. 9
- Practice proper sleep hygiene to ensure you get seven to nine hours of quality sleep at night. 10
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule—even on weekends. 11
- Be physically active during the day, which encourages more restful, restorative sleep. 12
- If you’re still tired, consider napping.
- If you missed some sleep (perhaps due to kids, weather, loud noises, or other interruptions), give yourself a chance to overcome your sleep debt.
Other Reasons You’re Tired
Time changes, jet lag, and shift work are also common causes of fatigue. Yet not all fatigue can be addressed with lifestyle changes.
If you are suffering from unexplained fatigue, you may have a medical condition that needs to be addressed. Some common causes include anemia, pregnancy (especially in the first 12 weeks), arthritis, fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, heart disease, infections, sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, autoimmune disorders, liver issues, respiratory illness, food allergies or sensitivities, and many more.
Medications, such as antihistamines, cough medications, and antidepressants, as well as alcohol and recreational drug use can also lead to fatigue. Conversely, coming off of medications can also lead to fatigue.
Vitamin deficiencies can also lead to fatigue. If you might be low on vitamin D, B12, or iron, magnesium, or potassium, a blood test can help you find out, and then you may want to work with a nutritionist to help you ensure you are getting enough nutrients.
Work with a trusted healthcare professional if you don’t know why you are feeling fatigued, if you have a higher than normal (for you) temperature, if you’re losing weight unexpectedly, if you’re more sensitive than usual to heat or cold, if you have trouble sleeping, or if you are experiencing depression or anxiety. That way you can ensure you are getting the support you need. Unexplained tiredness is one of the most common reasons people see their doctors, so you are not alone.
Common signs that fatigue may be caused by a health issue include:
- Lacking physical and mental energy
- Falling asleep during the day or at inappropriate times
- Being unable to stay alert
- Reduced ability to maintain or complete your desired activities
- Having a hard time concentrating
- Reduced memory
- Feeling emotionally unstable
- Feeling so tired you are unable to work, socialize, or participate in your usual activities.
It’s normal to feel fatigued after a long, sleepless night, a highly stressful day, or even when sleep is interrupted (such as by a new baby or puppy). But if you feel like you’re just too tired during or after a normal day, then you may need to address the lifestyle issues above or discuss further options with your doctor.