If you’re struggling to find the energy for everyday tasks—like going to work, parenting, or even just getting out of bed in the morning—life can feel like an uphill battle. We all have moments when we feel less energetic, but when fatigue prevents you from doing things you usually enjoy, there may be an underlying concern that needs attention.
Chronic fatigue syndrome, for example, is a well-known autoimmune disorder that affects up to 2.5 million Americans, but there are many other potential causes (behavioral, cognitive, and psychological) for feeling fatigued. Let’s look at some of the more common—and perhaps unexpected—forces that may be at work.More than 90% of those diagnosed with major depressive disorder experience fatigue. And we can also trace fatigue back to the most common mental health issue, anxiety disorders, which affect an estimated 40 million Americans. Click To Tweet
5 Common Causes of Fatigue
1. Poor diet. As we know, food can be medicine or poison—which category does your diet fall into? Eating a diet that’s centered around junk food has been shown to lead to lethargy in scientific studies, causing lab rats to languish and have trouble learning, while the Standard American Diet (SAD) has been shown to affect memory and has been linked to depression. All of these side effects and more can lead to a dulled body and mind.
In other words, the foods you consume can boost your energy and mood—or sap it. Avoid foods that are high-glycemic—things like sweets, white bread, and French fries—because they spike and then crash your blood sugar levels. This leaves you feeling physically and mentally sluggish. Instead, focus on consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables, small amounts of lean protein, and healthy fats to help balance your blood sugar, maintain better energy, and make you happier overall.
2. Mental health issues. More than 90% of those diagnosed with major depressive disorder experience fatigue, according to a 2018 study—sometimes a side effect of certain medications used to treat depression. On the opposite side, chronic fatigue increases the risk for depression. And, while depression affects more than 7% of the adult population, the condition is more common in females, who are twice as likely as men to suffer a depressive episode.
We can also trace fatigue back to the most common mental health issue, anxiety disorders, which affect an estimated 40 million Americans. Ongoing anxious thoughts can occur with persistent physical and psychological symptoms that drain your energy and leave you feeling tired and overwhelmed. To try to fight fatigue associated with depression, though it may sound counterintuitive, get your body moving—exercise has been shown to boost mood. And, if you’re looking to lower anxiety levels, try practices like deep breathing and meditation.
3. Stress, loss, and grief. According to the 2022 Stress in America poll by the American Psychological Association, Americans’ stress levels are soaring, with respondents citing concerns like inflation, the threat of war, and post-pandemic supply chain issues as major factors. Thus, many people are experiencing a pile of stresses stacking upon each other, which can lead to mental and emotional fatigue that then starts sapping the physical body. To lessen stress, try raising your mood and calming nerves with simple relaxation practices, like quiet reading time or meditation, that you can do at home.
Grief, on the other hand, disrupts activity in the brain’s emotional centers but can also activate the pain centers in the brain, resulting in feelings of physical pain—all of which contributes to feelings of exhaustion. If grieving is interrupting your sleep, you’ll probably also experience drowsiness during the day, while an overload of losses can leave anyone mentally exhausted. Grief is best counteracted with healthy-brain and healthy-body basics, like regular exercise, nutritious foods, quality sleep, and supplements, to help boost and preserve energy during this difficult time.
4. Alcohol or marijuana use. Many people self-medicate with substances like alcohol and marijuana before bedtime, thinking they will help them fall or stay asleep. Unfortunately, although these drugs may initially induce a feeling of sleepiness for some people, they create the reverse effect as they wear off. You may have already noticed that, after a cocktail or two, you wake up a few hours after you fall asleep—and then you can’t return to your slumber. No wonder you feel fatigued, as this isn’t exactly a recipe for optimal sleep hygiene!
The reason for this phenomenon? Alcohol seriously impairs a good night’s rest because it disrupts REM sleep, interferes with circadian rhythm, and gets us up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. If you think marijuana is a better option, think again: A 2022 study found that people who used cannabis on 20 or more days over the past month were more likely to get either too little sleep (less than 6 hours) or too much sleep (more than 9 hours) each night. If your sleep is compromised lately, avoid reaching for alcohol or marijuana and making matters worse. Instead, try adjusting your diet for better sleep, including avoiding any foods that may be interrupting your rest. There are many more (safer) ways to become a better sleeper.
5. Seasonal affective disorder. This type of depression, also called SAD, usually occurs during the winter, as the hours of daylight decrease and temperatures drop. The condition, which affects an estimated 6% of Americans, causes increased feelings of fatigue. In fact, those with SAD report sleeping an additional 2.5 hours each night in the winter. People with SAD tend to experience an energy drain, feelings of lethargy, low motivation, appetite changes, or a sense of emptiness or numbness that doesn’t go away, among other symptoms.
And, contrary to popular belief, not everyone is affected in winter: About 10% of people with SAD experience it during the summer months. It can even strike those with overnight work shifts, as they are usually exposed to less sunlight every day. And it can co-occur with other mental health issues, like depression, bipolar disorder, ADD/ADHD, substance use disorders, and eating disorders.
If SAD is affecting your energy levels, you might want to try bright light therapy (also known as light exposure therapy, circadian light therapy, light therapy, and phototherapy), which exposes you to a light box that mimics natural outdoor light (without the harmful UV rays) for a short daily session. The light sends signals to the brain, triggering brain chemical responses that can both uplift mood and help to beneficially impact an individual’s circadian rhythm. You’ll be on your way to a brighter outlook until the seasons shift in your favor.
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