Have you noticed that when people ask how you’re doing, your default answer is “OMFG I’m exhausted”? You aren’t alone.
In a 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 15 percent of women and 10 percent of men reported feeling very tired or exhausted within the last 3 months.
While extreme tiredness can be the result of an underlying medical condition, it’s also often related to small aspects of our daily activities. Here are 10 causes of fatigue and some suggestions for addressing them.
Some of these might be quick fixes, while others might require adjusting your habits more slowly.
Stress is just a part of life — it’s not something you could ever eliminate altogether. But chronic stress can contribute to all kinds of physical and emotional issues, including sleep problems.
Too much stress makes your body vulnerable to illness, headaches, muscle tension, and anxiety. Who wouldn’t be exhausted?
One 2014 study suggests that people with insomnia who are also stressed by relationship problems tend to have worse insomnia and be more alert before sleep, possibly due to rumination (aka worrying).
Another 2014 study on university students suggests a connection between perceived stress levels and sleep quality during exams.
You can try to relax with one of these activities:
- deep breathing
- progressive muscle relaxation
- tai chi
Energy drinks provide a one-two punch of sugar and caffeine, so they’re a popular choice for people who need to stay awake and alert. But overusing highly caffeinated beverages can leave you feeling more tired.
In a driving simulation study in 2009, fatigued participants did get a boost from an energy drink, but that surge came at the price of rebound fatigue once it wore off.
And in a review of 41 studies from 1990 to 2011, evidence showed that people who drank energy drinks experienced more daytime sleepiness the next day.
Think about it this way: Slamming Red Bulls to play video games will only lead to less sleep — and worse sleep.
Here are some other ways to get an energy boost:
- Drink tea or coffee. These bevvies have less caffeine than energy drinks, and you can control how much sugar you add. You’ll get a smaller energy burst but a smaller sleepy “hangover” too.
- Try shelling and eating sunflower seeds. In the driving study, this was effective at counteracting driver fatigue — but it’s probably safer to use this method when you don’t need your hands so much!
- Drink water or a protein shake (more on these in a second).
Ugh, you’re already tired — how are you supposed to exercise? Nevertheless, many studies have shown that being active can reduce fatigue.
In 2006, University of Georgia researchers analyzed several studies and concluded that regular exercise is associated with more energy and less fatigue.
In 2016, when researchers in the Netherlands put highly fatigued university students on a 6-week exercise program, the students had improvements in overall fatigue and need for recovery. And 12 weeks after the study, 80 percent of them were still exercising and reaping benefits in fatigue and sleep quality.
A 2013 study found that one exercise session of low to moderate intensity lasting more than 20 minutes made people feel more energetic.
Easy ways to get moving:
- Take a stroll. It takes just 20 minutes at low to moderate intensity to give you more energy!
- Stretch to loosen up and get your blood flowing.
- Remember gym class? Try a quick round of jumping jacks, push-ups, squats, and lunges to boost your energy.
Besides feeling tired, how can you tell if you’re getting poor-quality sleep?
According to the National Sleep Foundation, you’re not sleeping well if it takes you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, if you wake up more than once per night, or if you stay up for more than 20 minutes after waking in the middle of the night.
How to get better sleep, even if you can’t get more:
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine before sleep.
- Don’t eat a heavy meal or drink alcohol before bedtime.
- Keep your bedroom quiet and comfortable (60 to 67°F is ideal).
- If you take a daytime nap, keep it under 20 minutes to avoid sleep inertia.
You’re dragging through the morning and grab a doughnut as a pick-me-up. It works! You feel zoomy for a few minutes… and then you’re nodding off again.
What happened? Refined carbs happened.
These carbs — the ones in doughnuts, other sweets, and sugar-sweetened drinks — pump glucose straight into your bloodstream for quick energy. But that spike leads to an inevitable drop in blood sugar and energy.
For example, in 2014 Tufts University researchers studied the impact of different snacks on kids playing soccer and found that they played more intensely but were more fatigued after a high sugar snack.
For sustained energy, choose carbs paired with protein and fiber.
Some carb-y snacks that won’t spike blood sugar as much:
- whole-grain bread or crackers with nut butter
- whole fruit and string cheese
- hummus with veggies or whole-wheat pita
- a smoothie with high fiber produce and protein powder
A 2013 study in people with both food sensitivities and irritable bowel syndrome found that they were more likely to feel symptoms of fatigue and that they identified with the following statements:
- “Normal day-to-day events are stressful for me.”
- “I am not able to provide as much emotional support to my family as I should.”
- “I have to reduce my workload and responsibilities.”
- “I am less able to complete tasks that require physical effort.”
Sound familiar? If your digestive system feels wonky and you think certain foods might be to blame, it’s possible they’re contributing to your chronic tiredness too.
If you have these symptoms after eating particular foods, consult a healthcare professional about possible food intolerances:
- runny nose
- a general “under the weather” feeling
- stomach upset
- irritable bowel
Yeah, life is wild, but human adults need at least 7 hours of sleep per night. There’s no hack to escape that recommendation.
If you don’t regularly get enough sleep, you could have a higher risk of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, depression, impaired immune function, increased pain, impaired performance, increased errors, and accidents.
How to stay in (circadian) rhythm? Try these:
- Go to bed and get up at the same time every day (even on weekends).
- Limit naps to 15 to 20 minutes.
- Do something active after dinner if you have an energy slump but it’s too early for bedtime.
- Get some sunlight.
- Try a light therapy box.
- Avoid screens for 1 to 2 hours before bedtime.
- Keep your bedroom dark.
Calories are units of energy in food. If you don’t consume enough of them, you’ll be low on energy. It really is that simple.
A diet deficient in calories is also likely deficient in micronutrients that keep all your systems working properly, converting food into energy, supporting your immune system, and keeping you perky in general.
A 2002 study found that female athletes in sports that prize low body weight (gymnastics, distance running, diving, figure skating, and ballet) were more prone to nutrient deficiency, fatigue, dehydration, delayed growth, and impaired immunity.
Your body needs a minimum number of calories just to support its basic functions. If you do anything besides breathe and stay alive, you’ll need more calories than that.
If you feel the need to restrict calories despite feeling tired all the time, consider talking with a mental health professional or a registered dietitian about your relationship with food.
A number of studies have tried to measure the relationship between protein consumption and fatigue.
For example, in a 2015 study, a group of male weightlifters experienced less stress and fatigue while on a high protein, low fat diet than on a moderate protein, moderate fat diet.
A 2018 study in marathon runners found that participants showed improvements in physical fatigue, mental energy, and soreness 3 days after the event when they added protein to their mid- or post-run snack.
And in a 2013 study, Korean college students who ate high protein foods like meat, fish, eggs, and beans more than twice a day reported lower levels of fatigue.
Try these sources of high quality protein:
- fish (especially those high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel, albacore tuna, and herring)
- skinless chicken and turkey
- dairy products
- nuts and seeds
- soy products
Water is vital to every part of your body, so it stands to reason that dehydration would leave you sluggish.
According to some studies, athletes with inadequate hydration during sports don’t perform as well and report more fatigue and greater perceived exertion.
A 2018 study of combat sports athletes suggests that dehydration is associated with impaired muscular strength, endurance, and increased fatigue.
If it seems like hydration matters only for athletes performing intense sports, remember that your body works basically the same way theirs do. You can boost your performance by drinking more water too.
Watch for these symptoms of dehydration:
- dry skin
- decreased urination
These conditions can also cause unusual fatigue. Consult a healthcare professional if you think one of these conditions is getting you down:
- sleep apnea
- underactive thyroid
- celiac disease
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- glandular fever
- restless legs syndrome
Chronic tiredness makes everything harder, but there are ways to cope. Try a few of these tweaks to your diet, activities, or routine to fight fatigue and feel more rested soon.