Tiredness and fatigue: Why it happens and how to beat it

‘Tired all the time’ is a popular complaint; tiredness and fatigue are common problems. Often, it is not a medical issue but one that can be reversed by a change of lifestyle.

Tiredness can negatively impact performance at work, family life, and social relationships. Fatigue has a reputation as a vague and difficult problem for doctors to investigate, and many people with fatigue do not report it to their doctor.

Doctors who are conscious of this take the problem seriously and attempt to determine an underlying cause. There are many reasons people become tired, and, consequently, there are many ways to rectify the situation.

Fast facts on fatigue and tiredness:

Fatigue is also known as tiredness, reduced energy, physical or mental exhaustion, or lack of motivation.

Causes of fatigue can be psychological, physiological, and physical.

To diagnose the reasons for fatigue, a doctor will ask questions and take a sleep history, and may perform a physical examination and blood and urine tests.

Treatment is focused on the underlying cause of tiredness.

What is fatigue?

woman sleeping on train
Fatigue and tiredness are common and can affect everyday life.

Simply put, fatigue is the feeling of being tired.

It is generally different from the sleepy feeling of drowsiness, or the psychological feeling of apathy, although these might both accompany fatigue.

Other terms to describe fatigue include:

reduced or no energy

physical or mental exhaustion

lack of motivation

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Causes

Fatigue is a common experience – all humans become tired. However, this is not usually due to disease. There are numerous medical and non-medical causes of fatigue, including personal dietary and lifestyle habits.

The following factors can contribute to fatigue, either alone or in combination:

Psychological and psychosocial – stress, anxiety, and depression.

Physical – anemia, diabetes, glandular fever, and cancer.

Physiological – pregnancy, breast-feeding, inadequate sleep, and excessive exercise.

Some types of fatigue are not normally considered a medical problem, this includes tiredness as a result of:

physical activity

emotional stress

boredom

lack of sleep

The National Institute on Aging lists the following lifestyle habits that can lead to tiredness and fatigue:

staying up too late

having too much caffeine

drinking too much alcohol

eating junk food

Some people are more likely than others to suffer from fatigue. For instance, women more often report fatigue. People who live in poverty and those with mental or physical illness are also more likely to present with fatigue.

Medical causes

Physical causes can lead to fatigue, along with psychological and physiological factors. The list of physical or medical causes is long, making it important to see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis based on an individual’s personal and medical history.

The list of potential medical reasons for fatigue includes:

obesity

obstructive sleep apnea

sedative and antidepressant treatments

insomnia

anemia

iron deficiency

cancer

kidney disease

liver disease

heart failure

thyroid disease

diabetes

Addison’s disease

anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders

arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis

autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus

fibromyalgia

infection, especially long-term

AIDS, tuberculosis, and mononucleosis

malnutrition

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