When you ask someone how they’re doing, if they don’t throw out the usual “I’m fine,” they’ll probably mention that they’re tired, or even exhausted. So what’s going on? Are we all actually that tired all the time? Have we just stopped sleeping? Though it’s different for every person, if you find that you do get what should be “enough” sleep, but you’re still tired all the time, you’re not alone. Here are some reasons why that might be happening.
I get a good seven to eight hours of sleep every night and exercise at least three times a week, but somehow I still feel tired every day. What’s sapping my energy and what can I do about it?
It’s pretty common for people to feel dead tired occasionally, despite following the general formula for sleep and exercise. The most common energy-zapping culprits are poor quality sleep, high stress, and a bad diet. Thankfully these are all mostly temporary, fixable problems. Tiredness or fatigue, however, could also be a symptom of a more serious issue. Let’s take a look at the possible causes for your tiredness so we can narrow it down and come up with a solution for you to feel more energized.
What is your sleep really like?
The first thing to do is make sure you’re actually sleeping both soundly and long enough. The oft-recommended eight hours of sleep is just a loose guideline, and the perfect amount of sleep varies from person to person. (In fact, too much sleep can lead to tiredness and other problems just as too little sleep might). Your ideal amount of sleep also changes as you get older.
To find out how much sleep you personally need, conduct an experiment, moving your bedtime around until you wake up naturally just before your morning alarm. You can also use an app like Shleep to calculate the best time to fall asleep, based on your sleep cycles. The theory is if you wake up in between deep sleep cycles instead of in the middle of one, you’ll feel more refreshed and alert instead of groggy and cranky.
Finally, it’s not just how much shut-eye you get but also how well you sleep—the quality of your sleep—that matters. If you constantly wake or toss and turn in the night, your sleep is sabotaged no matter how many hours you get. People who have sleep apnea sleep poorly because of breathing issues, but many people with the condition don’t even know they have it. Here are a few things you can do about the quality of your sleep:
What are you eating and drinking?
If poor sleep isn’t your problem, the next thing to look at is your diet. The foods you eat make you more or less productive and energized, since they’re really the fuel for your brain.
Some snacks and meals keep you satiated for hours, while others are more likely to cause sugar crashes in a short period of time. Eggs and oranges, for example, are more likely to sustain you than crackers and croissants. So if you’re feeling tired primarily at certain times of the day (afternoon crashes, for example), rather than throughout the day, better snack and meal planning can help create a more high-energy day.
Research conducted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine suggests that diets high in fat can lead to daytime sleepiness and less alertness, so a more balanced diet is highly recommended:
Results show that higher fat consumption was associated with increased objective daytime sleepiness, while higher carbohydrate intake was associated with increased alertness. There was no relationship between protein consumption and sleepiness or alertness. These findings were independent of the subjects’ gender, age, and body mass index as well as the total amount of sleep they were getting and their total caloric intake.
Similarly, other studies suggest you should eat more natural, unprocessed carbs, even at breakfast.
Finally, don’t forget to drink enough water every day (and make sure you aren’t dehydrating yourself or wrecking your sleep with alcohol and caffeine).
How’s your mental health?
If you live with depression and/or anxiety, it could also be contributing to your exhaustion. Depression in particular can cause you to live in a constant state of fatigue. You may have trouble getting out of bed in the morning not only because everything in the world seems hopeless, but also because you’re so damn tired and have no energy. Depression also messes with your sleep cycle and the quality of your sleep.
Along the same lines, constant fatigue is also a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder. Gnawing anxiety may be keeping you up at night, or causing you to wake up mid-sleep cycle, so when you wake up in the morning, you don’t feel refreshed. Also, being constantly in fight-or-flight mode is exhausting and uses up a lot of energy. So if you’re always tired and have other symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, you may want to talk to your doctor about it.
Are you experiencing burnout?
If you’re burned out, stressed, or even bored, your energy level can drop. If you’re not sure whether you fit into this category, the World Health Organization recently released an official definition of burnout (or as they say, “burn-out”), classifying it as a “factor influencing health status.” Here’s the new definition:
Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.
If any of this sounds familiar, you could be experiencing burnout which, understandably, could make you feel very, very tired—even if you’re getting enough sleep.
Get a physical
If the above sleep, nutrition, and psychological causes of fatigue don’t apply to you, you’re probably going to want to get a physical. (Even if they’re not, getting a regular physical is a good idea.) Besides lifestyle factors, fatigue can be a sign of a medical issue.
The Mayo Clinic lists several medical conditions that could be behind your exhaustion including: anemia (iron deficiency), heart disease, diabetes, thyroid problems and others. Even allergies, vitamin D deficiency, or the medications you’re taking could be making you tired.
A full checkup and bloodwork from your doctor can help identify why lacking in energy and what you can do about it. The NIH says:
The pattern of fatigue may help your doctor determine its cause. For example, if you wake up in the morning rested but quickly develop fatigue with activity, you may have a condition such as an underactive thyroid. On the other hand, if you wake up with a low level of energy and have fatigue that lasts throughout the day, you may be depressed.
If all of this has you worried, don’t fret. The NIH also says that fatigue is a common symptom and usually not due to a serious disease. Just remember to get your checkup, pay attention to your mental health, and adjust your sleep, exercise, relaxation and nutrition habits.
This story was originally published in June 2013 and was updated on October 28, 2020 to meet Lifehacker style guidelines.