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Why am I so tired all the time? Don’t sleep on these causes of fatigue

October 5, 2022 - 16 min read

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What is fatigue?

Why have I been so tired lately?

Don’t sleep on it

It’s Friday afternoon, it’s been a long week, and you have one last email to send before you can sign off for the day. But, for some reason, your brain won’t co-operate. You can barely string a sentence together, let alone update your boss on the details of your important project.

If you’ve had a busy week, it’s normal for you to feel tired. And with the added stresses of working from home, dealing with the aftermath of a pandemic, and a news diet filled with the latest tragedies, you aren’t alone: almost everyone is feeling tired these days.

American work culture encourages us to power through when we’re worn out. But if you do, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. After a point, perseverance harms your productivity more than helps it, and driving yourself to the ground can have serious physical and mental health consequences.

Pay attention when you find yourself asking, “Why am I so tired all the time?” Your fatigue is a sign you should listen to your body and take care of yourself — which usually means more than a single night of quality sleep.

 

What is fatigue?

Fatigue is so much more than a small bout of tiredness. According to the American Psychological Association, it’s a state of tiredness and diminished functioning that interferes with your everyday life. 

There are three kinds of fatigue:

  • Acute fatigue is when a debilitating lack of energy lasts for a month or less.
  • Subacute fatigue expands the timeframe slightly: your tiredness lasts between 1-3 months.
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (sometimes called CFS) is characterized by extreme tiredness that lasts for at least six months.

Symptoms of fatigue

The most obvious sign of fatigue is extreme tiredness that doesn’t go away, even after a good night’s sleep or fourth cup of coffee. You can also expect any number of other symptoms to accompany the condition:

  • Difficulties remembering, focusing, and concentrating. Proper rest is a prerequisite to having a great working memory and the cognitive function that allows you to temporarily store and track information. This is crucial to helping you focus on your tasks. But if you’re constantly exhausted, your working memory will falter.
  • Dizziness. Feeling dizzy can signify chronic fatigue, especially if it worsens when you’re lying or sitting down.
  • Abnormal exhaustion after exercise. Fatigue can cause shortness of breath after even the smallest workout. Pay attention to whether you’re feeling more tired than usual after your regular exercise routine.
  • Unexplained muscle or joint pain. Your joints or muscles might hurt due to your exhaustion. In other cases, your fatigue could be the result of a chronic pain condition such as rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Other physical symptoms. Your extreme fatigue might be accompanied by one or more other physical symptoms like night sweats, tender lymph nodes in the neck and armpits, or an irregular heartbeat.

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How fatigue impacts work performance

Some of these symptoms may appear milder than others. You might even think you can power through. But they can have a significant impact on your work performance. For example, they can decrease your:

  • Decision-making skills
  • Ability to create and execute complex plans
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Reaction times
  • Stress management

And depending on the nature of your job, tiredness can cause workplace injuries. Workers with sleep problems are 1.62 times more likely to hurt themselves than well-rested workers. About 13% of work injuries can be attributed to employee sleep problems. 

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Why have I been so tired lately?

If you’re wondering how to stop feeling tired all the time, there’s no clear answer. So many potential underlying causes make it difficult to pinpoint which one affects you. 

But there are some obvious lifestyle factors you can change before consulting a physician, such as:

  • Drinking too much alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption is known to interfere with sleep patterns. Try keeping it to weekends or quit drinking altogether.
  • Not enough physical activity. A sedentary lifestyle will easily zap your energy. The CDC recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate daily exercise to keep up your energy levels.
  • Poor diet. Eating food high in fat and glucose will harm your sleep and blood sugar levels, putting you at risk of type 2 diabetes. It will also put you at risk of blood pressure and heart disease. Try creating a balanced diet focused on healthy eating, including foods high in vitamins B12 and D.

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BetterUp can help you adjust your lifestyle, so it’s less taxing on you. With one of our coaches, you can hone your time-management skills, improve your work-life balance, and learn to work smarter instead of harder. Fatigue management in the workplace is tough to grapple with. But it's possible to get a handle on your fatigue. Together, you can make your lifestyle work for you — not the other way around.

Consult your physician if you don’t think your lifestyle is causing your tiredness. They can search for psychological and physical causes of fatigue. 

Psychological causes

Psychological causes of fatigue are the most common. Many of them cause a lack of sleep/insomnia, which in turn causes daytime sleepiness. Here are some common causes:

  1. Stress. Stress releases energy-producing hormones like cortisol and epinephrine/adrenaline. When you have too many stressors in your life, these hormones can easily break your sleep patterns and keep you up at night, causing fatigue during the day.
  2. Emotional shock. A death in the family or a bad breakup can easily leave you feeling tired. After the initial burst of stress hormones, your mind and body will need time to grieve and recover from the resulting emotional exhaustion.            
  3. Depression. Depression can cause insomnia, and insomnia can exacerbate depression. They’re intimately related and can indicate each other — especially if your tiredness is accompanied by a sense of helplessness, loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed, and/or thoughts of self-harm or death.

    Call 911 or the suicide prevention lifeline if you’re thinking about suicide.
  4. Anxiety disorders. Occasional anxiety about the future or current stressors is normal. But if it takes over your life and develops into a disorder, it’ll easily cause you to lose sleep and feel tired, among other harmful symptoms.

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Physical causes

Your fatigue could be the result of a medical condition. A healthcare provider will help diagnose which one is affecting you, but here are some common culprits:

  1. COVID-19 and other viral infections. The flu and the common cold can cause fatigue, but it usually disappears once you recover. In the case of COVID-19, tiredness can last weeks after the initial infection. The World Health Organization calls this phenomenon the “post-COVID-19 condition,” but you probably know it as “long COVID-19.”
  2. Pregnancy. Fatigue is a common pregnancy symptom, but it’s usually contained in the first trimester. By the second trimester, women typically report a fresh surge of energy. 
  3. Anemia (iron deficiency). This condition occurs when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to circulate oxygen in your system. A lack of iron in your system will cause feelings of fatigue and a weakened immune system. You might need to adjust your diet or take iron supplements. Your doctor will likely order a blood test to diagnose this health condition.
  4. Obesity. Some evidence suggests that excessive weight gain may disrupt your metabolism, your circadian rhythm (the body’s natural sleep/wake cycle), and cause sleep apnea. It’s also possible that carrying excess weight can impact sleep quality.
  5. Being underweight. On the other hand, excessive weight loss can cause a weakened autoimmune system, fragile bones, and fatigue. It could also be a sign of an eating disorder, which carries its own health risks.
  6. Thyroid gland disorders. Thyroid hormones are directly linked to your body’s ability to produce energy. Hypothyroidism, a condition characterized by an underactive thyroid, slows down your metabolism, making you feel tired. 
  7. Cancer or cancer treatments. Everything about a cancer diagnosis can cause fatigue. The disease itself zaps your body’s energy. Cancer treatments, like radiation or chemotherapy, can have strong energy-draining side effects. And the psychological stress of a diagnosis can take a toll on your energy. 

The bottom line: any number of mental and physical ailments can cause fatigue. If a lifestyle change doesn’t fix the problem, you’re better off consulting a physician to get to the root of the issue. 

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Don’t sleep on it

It’s normal to feel tired once in a while. But it's worth investigating if it lasts for more than a month. Your body is trying to tell you something, and you shouldn’t ignore the signs. Otherwise, the consequences will catch up to you. At best, you’ll make a typo in an email. At worst, you could seriously injure yourself due to negligence.

From COVID-19 to chronic stress, there are too many options for you to diagnose yourself. Make sure to consult a doctor if you’re always asking yourself, “Why am I so tired all the time?” to stay at your best.

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Published October 5, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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