Fatigue is a common, non-specific symptom that can mean different things to people. Too most, it is more than just feeling sleepy. It is an ongoing feeling of exhaustion that may be physical, mental, or emotional in nature. It is not resolved by a single good night’s sleep or by taking a nap.
Fatigue and feeling tired all the time are among the most common reasons people go to see their doctor. The cause of fatigue can be anything from unhealthy lifestyle habits, excessive work/burnout, to an underlying illness or health problem. For this reason, it may important to identify the cause of your fatigue and address it so that you can recover and enjoy a better day-to-day quality of life.
What is Fatigue?
Fatigue is the term given to a constant, unremitting feeling of tiredness, weakness, exhaustion, or lack of energy. It’s important to understand that fatigue is not a health condition in itself, but rather a symptom of something else. Its cause may be a single underlying issue, but it is often a result of a combination of issues that include social, psychological, physical, and lifestyle factors.
Symptoms of Fatigue
Fatigue can present in an array of ways. The symptoms of fatigue include but are not limited to:
Subjective sense of weakness
Difficulty or inability to initiate activity
Reduced capacity to maintain activity
Difficulty with concentration, memory or emotional stability
Some patients will be describing excessive sleepiness when they say they are fatigued. Fatigue may also present with some localised complaints such as headache, lack of appetite, etc.
Fatigue makes it harder to function at your best. It is also a contributor to errors in judgement, and workplace and traffic accidents and injuries.
There are a number of things which can directly cause fatigue. These fatigue causes may be medical, psychological, or based on your lifestyle choices.
Medical Causes of Fatigue
Diabetes – A group of diseases that result in high blood glucose levels
Sleep Apnoea – causes disruption to breathing during sleep, up to hundreds of times per night
Thyroid Disease – can cause tiredness and sluggishness, or anxiety and sleep issues – all of which can cause daytime fatigue
Anaemia – low levels of iron in the blood
Food Intolerance – fatigue may be an early symptom of food intolerance such as, coeliac disease
Being Overweight/Underweight – the body can’t function properly when it is not a healthy weight.
Glandular Fever (Epstein-Barr Virus) – a viral disease more common in adolescents which causes extreme exhaustion as well as swollen glands and a sore throat.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a complicated medical disorder. It is diagnosed when extreme ongoing fatigue can’t be explained by an underlying medical condition. It may be triggered by a viral illness, immune impairment, or hormone imbalance.
Other diseases that may cause fatigue include heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, intestinal parasites, and cancer.
It is common to go through periods of having low energy, however when fatigue feels like it could be a result of something more serious or it lasts longer than a couple of weeks consider seeing your doctor.
Psychological Causes of Fatigue
Stress – makes it difficult to relax and quiet the mind, impinging on the ability to get quality sleep.
Anxiety and Depression – these common mental health issues often present with fatigue as a major symptom – yet fatigue can also be the cause of feelings of anxiety or depression.
Lifestyle Factors that Contribute to Fatigue
Poor Diet – the body requires a balance of complex carbohydrates, protein and good fats to be healthy. Sugar and caffeine boost energy only temporarily and then wear off, making fatigue worse.
Lack of Exercise – exercising regularly and being fit is essential for the function of body and mind and to boost energy levels. Exercise also reduces stress.
Consumption of Alcohol or Drugs – alcohol and many illicit drugs are depressants; they not only cause tiredness but also compromise the quality of sleep.
Tobacco Smoking – lack of oxygen in smokers’ blood as a direct result of cigarette smoking can cause the body to not function optimally.
Work Schedule – shift workers experience disruption to the body’s natural biorhythm and sleep-wake cycles. Workplace stress can also impact on mental health and the ability to relax at night.
Sleep Disturbance – due to snoring, a snoring partner, poor sleep hygiene, a stuffy bedroom, wakeful children, nightmares, a barking neighbourhood dog, and similar occurrences diminish the quality of sleep.
Too Much or Too Little Sleep – most adults require around 8 hours of sleep per night for the mind and body to function optimally; more than this however can result in daytime sleepiness.
Diagnosing and Treating Fatigue
Fatigue in itself is not a bad thing. It is a normal response to other things happening in your life and in your body.
Your local doctor will evaluate you, and may order some tests. These will depend on your individual circumstances and presenting symptoms. These may include blood tests, x-rays, or scans such as an MRI or CT if your doctor believes they are required. These may help pinpoint the underlying causes of your fatigue so the necessary treatment can be provided.
It's important to remember that often there is no obvious cause of fatigue. This will worry some, but for many people, fatigue is a self-limiting process but may take months to settle. A ‘watchful waiting’ period with your GP is often the most prudent thing to do. Making some changes around self care, work, diet etc in this time will often help with the fatigue and have other positive effects on your life.
Visit Your GP
If you’re experiencing fatigue, your GP can help you take steps to improve how you feel. To make an appointment with one of our GPs, click here or give us a call on 07 5471 2100.