What is fatigue? For many, it is a persistent sensation of mental or physical exhaustion. It extends beyond the passing sensation of tiredness. Fatigue is a chronic symptom that can be related to a variety of diagnoses or lifestyle imbalances. In other words, it is often a symptom of a larger problem. In this article, we will explore common causes of fatigue and what to do about it.
Twenty-five percent of all General Practitioner (GP) visits can be linked to fatigue. A study in the USA finds that fatigue impacts 40% of workers, resulting in 65% productivity loss (compared to 26% productivity loss in those without fatigue). Risk factors for fatigue increase with age, especially amongst those with chronic pain. It is also two-to-three times more likely in females than in males.
Nevertheless, no one is immune from fatigue. Fatigue decreases productivity in the workplace. It impairs athletic performance and increases the risk of physical injury. In children, it impacts performance at school. Fatigue is also linked to increased traffic incidents.
Fatigue is a common complaint of individuals across the lifespan. However, it can be difficult to pinpoint the causes of fatigue. Here’re 9 common causes of fatigue and what to do about it.
Keep in mind that fatigue is often a symptom of a larger problem. If you are experiencing fatigue, it may be a sign that lifestyle changes are necessary. Chronic fatigue may also require the help of a medical professional, licensed counselor, nutritionist, or a combination of practitioners.
1. Nutrient Deficiencies
Energy comes from food. Nutritional deficiencies can lead to lethargy and physical fatigue. In the United States, nutritional deficiencies are not common. However, many individuals do not reach the estimated adequate requirement (EAR) of essential nutrients. Some several vitamins and minerals are linked with energy. A deficiency in any of these nutrients can cause fatigue.
B vitamins, vitamin C, iron, and magnesium are essential for converting food into energy. A deficiency in any of these vitamins can slow down the whole system. This could lead to muscle fatigue, cognitive impairment, or mental disorders.
A Medical Doctor (MD) can check vitamin levels with a blood test. If levels are low, supplements can be prescribed. Keep in mind that the best way to absorb nutrients is through food.
If you have low levels of vitamins and minerals, consider altering your diet. The best diets are balanced and varied, with nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, and dairy products. It may be helpful to work with a nutritionist or MD to ensure your diet reaches the EAR of essential nutrients.
2. Mental Disorders
Fatigue may be the result of an underlying mental disorder, such as depression or anxiety. The symptoms of depression and anxiety can result in fatigue if left untreated.
For example, anxiety can create fatigue related to chronic stress. Panic attacks may result in exhaustion, due to the amount of energy expended during an attack. Anxiety is also related to avoidance and indecision. To an outside observer, these symptoms may mimic fatigue.
Depression, sadness, and grief may also look like fatigue. It takes energy to suppress feelings of anger, sadness, or grief. Similarly, the symptoms of depression leave individuals feeling lifeless.
The following list of symptoms combines signs of depression or anxiety. Each symptom may not be related to a mental disorder. For diagnostic criteria to be met, a licensed practitioner will consider a variety of factors.
Use these symptoms to consider making an appointment with a professional. Do not attempt to self-diagnose.
Common symptoms to look for may include a decrease in:
- Sex drive
- Focus, attention, or memory
- Interest in enjoyable activities
Common symptoms may also include an increase in:
- Racing thoughts
- Feelings of overwhelm or emotional exhaustion
- Panic attacks
- Fear or worry
- Brain fog
These symptoms are not comprehensive. It may be necessary to meet with a Psychiatrist, MD, or licensed therapist to obtain a formal diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Keep in mind that mental disorders may also manifest as physical symptoms such as muscle tension or chronic pain.
Stress is essential for productivity and motivation. It creates an internal drive to get things done. Short bursts of stress that result in productivity and a sense of accomplishment are called eustress.
However, stress that becomes chronic is called distress. There is no relief from distress. It is ongoing and results in a build-up of tension. Distress is brought on by many factors:
- A busy lifestyle
- Unrealistic expectations
- Work pressure
- Relationship issues
- Lack of boundaries
It is important to schedule an unstructured time that is not goal-directed. Stress is healthy when it leads to productivity and a feeling of accomplishment. However, a balanced life requires moments of rest. Bursts of productivity should be rewarded with downtime and a chance to engage in enjoyable activities.
4. Work-Related Stress
There is a relationship between work stress and fatigue. Several factors may be linked with fatigue in the work environment:
- Shift work
- Minimal breaks
- Lack of control
- High demand
- Minimal social support
These work-related stressors may be managed by protective factors. Protective factors include social support, a balanced lifestyle, or a sense of purpose derived from work. However, without protective factors in place, each of these stressors may lead to burnout or fatigue.
A state of chronic stress often leads to burnout. Burnout is a term that encompasses a variety of conditions brought on by work-related stress. It may also be called adrenal fatigue, compassion fatigue, or vicarious trauma. Burnout is common among helping professionals such as doctors, therapists, or caretakers.
Common feelings associated with burnout include:
- Feeling detached from work
- Feeling unaccomplished or ineffective
In particular, people who experience burnout may feel worn out, depleted, and debilitated. Burnout may show up physically as headaches, exhaustion, muscle tension, hypertension, gastrointestinal issues, cold/flu symptoms, and sleep disorders.
Burnout is caused by feeling overworked without time for rest and recovery. It is also related to feeling isolated and unsupported. Individuals who feel like they do not have control at work, are not living in accordance with their values, or do not feel appreciated are at greater risk for burnout.
Work-related stress is difficult to overcome. Many people feel they cannot leave their jobs due to financial or relational pressures. However, if work is taking a toll on your mental, physical, and emotional state, then something needs to change.
Consider these ideas to help relieve burnout at work:
- Set boundaries
- Focus on what you can control
- Speak openly with your boss (if you feel comfortable)
- Ask for help or longer breaks
- Build in breathing or grounding techniques during your workday
- Find a hobby or relaxing activity to try after work
Rest and recovery are essential to career longevity, especially for those in the helping professions. Burnout does not happen overnight and it cannot be cured overnight. Consider working with a therapist to make the necessary lifestyle changes to overcome burnout-related fatigue.
6. Inadequate Sleep
Sleep is essential. Yet, lifestyle imbalances can result in sleep disorders and lead to fatigue. Lack of sleep is the most commonly reported cause of fatigue.
Healthy individuals need at least seven hours of sleep, per night. Lack of sleep can lead to impaired mood, judgment, and memory. It can also lead to physical health problems such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and increased mortality.
Sleep hygiene is used to describe behaviors that lead to rejuvenating sleep. Proper sleep hygiene includes lifestyle factors that contribute to healthy sleep patterns. Here are several suggestions for improving sleep hygiene:
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine before bed
- Limit naps
- Maintain a quiet and comfortable bedroom
- Keep work and stress away from the bedroom
- Maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle
A night routine can repair poor sleeping habits. Over time, this routine will begin to signal tiredness in the mind and body. It can be as simple as putting on pajamas, dimming the lights, and having a warm cup of tea. However, repetition is key to creating a successful sleep routine.
7. Inconsistent Sleep
It is common for people to experience fatigue, despite getting adequate sleep. It is a misconception that getting seven of sleep per night is enough to eliminate fatigue. Fatigue also occurs when the sleep-wake cycle is inconsistent or disrupted.
Sleep is regulated by circadian rhythms. This is a biological pattern related to light, temperature, and social interaction. It helps to signal sleep and wakefulness in the body and mind.
Any disruptions in the sleep cycle can lead to an imbalance in circadian rhythms. The more variability there is between sleep and wake times, the more likely someone is to develop a sleep disorder. Jet lag, daytime napping, and shift work contribute to sleep-related disorders.
As often as possible, aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time. Avoiding naps during the day can help to increase tiredness at night. Taking supplements may help to cue tiredness in the body until a routine is established. Over time, a consistent sleep and wake schedule will strengthen circadian rhythms.
How is exercise related to fatigue? Too much or too little exercise could both cause fatigue.
For competitive athletes, both mental and physical fatigue may be related to impaired performance. Over-exercising may result in impaired movement control, which increases the risk of injury. Mental fatigue can also result in reduced speed and accuracy.
For most individuals, moderate exercise is the goal. Exercise can increase energy and reduce fatigue. This may be related to the mood-boosting neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine that are released during exercise.
For individuals with fatigue, low-intensity exercise is the goal. Moderate exercise may be too much. A study by the University of Georgia found that low-intensity exercise can increase energy by 20% and reduce fatigue by 65%, for individuals experiencing fatigue. An easy walk could be considered a low-intensity exercise.
This may be a great time to add gentle stretching or yoga to your routine. Walking meditation can also pack an extra mindfulness punch.
9. Medical Issues
Fatigue could be a sign of an underlying medical issue. Generally, fatigue that does not go away after lifestyle changes—such as relaxation or a good night’s sleep—may be related to a medical condition. It is important to speak with an MD regarding persistent symptoms of fatigue.
In the United States, nearly four-to-eight out of every 1,000 adults experience fatigue related to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). CFS is twice as likely in women than in men. Unfortunately, there is no diagnostic test that can conclusively diagnose CFS.
Nevertheless, it is essential to visit an MD to rule out possible medical conditions related to fatigue. Several conditions may be related to feelings of fatigue:
- Congestive heart failure
- Kidney disease
This is not a comprehensive list. Only a trained professional can make an accurate assessment and diagnosis of fatigue. However, the aforementioned causes of fatigue can help you and your provider explore your symptoms and identify potential lifestyle imbalances related to fatigue.
After exploring the common causes of fatigue, you may have a better understanding of what is happening in your body. Overall, many causes of fatigue can be remedied by lifestyle changes, such as sleep hygiene, a nutritious diet, low-intensity exercise, or stress-reduction techniques.
However, this is not a comprehensive list. It is important to remember that fatigue is a symptom of a larger problem. If you are experiencing fatigue, talk to a trusted healthcare professional to ensure you are not missing a serious medical condition.
Anyone can benefit from improved quality of sleep, a nutritious diet, and stress-reduction techniques. Consider implementing a combination of these tips to lead a healthier life. Fatigue may be common but that does not mean it has to be a life sentence. Relief from fatigue is possible.
More Tips on Coping with Fatigue
- Why You Shouldn’t Ignore Your Fatigue Symptom (& How to Boost Energy)
- Why You’re Feeling Tired All the Time (and What to Do About It)
Featured photo credit: Mel Elías via unsplash.com