HealthAgenda

Physical Health

Why am I always tired?

Finding it hard to keep your eyes open? We explore 6 of the most common causes of tiredness and what you could do about them.

Do you repeatedly hit the snooze button on your alarm because you wake up exhausted? If so, you’re not alone. According to Better Health Channel, around 1.5 million Australians visit their doctor each year seeking a cure for fatigue. And, since COVID-19, pandemic fatigue has also left many people exhausted and worn out.

If this sounds familiar, chances are you’re keen to increase your energy levels and general wellbeing. Though ongoing tiredness should be checked by your GP, the good news is that while tiredness can be a sign of an underlying medical condition, it’s often down to lifestyle-related issues that you can improve.

Here are some of the most common.

1. Inadequate sleep

Sleep is the foundation of energy and good health. Yet research by the Sleep Health Foundation has found that 4 out of 10 Australians don’t get enough sleep – giving rise to depression and irritability, as well as reducing levels of alertness and concentration.

Most of us know we should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep a night, but this isn’t always achievable (or necessary) for everyone, says Dr David Cunnington, co-director of the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre.

“Often people come to me looking for more minutes of sleep, but research shows that what gets them feeling better is being less distressed about attaining that elusive ‘perfect’ sleep,” he explains.

What you can do: Practise good sleep hygiene by trying to incorporate daily routines and ensuring your bedroom encourages consistent, unbroken sleep. That includes trying to wake up and go to bed at the same time, regardless of the day of the week, to get your body into a regular rhythm, plus avoiding lots of naps, as they can disrupt your sleep pattern.

It’s also important to cultivate a sleep-friendly bedroom. “Your bedroom should be dark and quiet, with a controlled [comfortable] temperature,” says Dr Cunnington. “You should also ‘quarantine’ an appropriate amount of time for sleep; it shouldn’t be the thing you do when everything else is finished.”

Try to avoid screen time before bed too. Exposure to blue light from computers, phones and tablets can cause insomnia or delayed sleep onset by reducing levels of the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin. You may find it helpful to avoid screen time an hour or 2 before bed, or by adjusting the settings on your devices in the evening to filter out blue light.

Reading about how important sleep is can be highly irritating if you’re experiencing unavoidable sleep disruption, like caring for babies or small children during the night. Sometimes tiredness comes with the territory and there’s little you can do about it, other than sharing the load wherever possible.

2. Poor diet

Food is one of our main sources of energy, so it’s no surprise that what you eat can impact how you feel. To function properly, you should eat both macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins), and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Micronutrients help your body absorb macronutrients. So, if your macronutrient intake is too high, your body may not efficiently process and absorb your nutrients, leaving you lethargic.

What you can do: Avoid reaching for sugary carbs like donuts and sweet biscuits to beat a morning or afternoon slump. Instead, eat a healthy and varied diet to boost your energy levels, suggests Dr Abhi Verma, spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. Energising foods are rich in iron (see point 5 below) as well as low-glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates, like wholegrain bread and quinoa. “Also aim to eat 2 servings of fruit and 5 servings of vegetables every day,” he adds.

3. Not enough exercise

Hitting the gym when you’re tired may seem counterintuitive, but it will increase your energy far more than staying on the couch. Inactivity can decondition the body’s musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems, and depress your mood – all of which contribute to fatigue.

What you can do: “Try for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or walking every day,” says Dr Verma. Research also suggests that factoring in 10-minute activity ‘breaks’ to your day can also benefit your health.

4. Stress

Whether caused by work, relationship issues or major life events, stress can be a major cause of tiredness. “When you’re stressed, you release hormones and chemicals into your body, which can simulate a ‘flight or fight’ response,” Dr Verma explains. “The release of these chemicals can temporarily deplete energy supplies, which can lead to ongoing fatigue.”

Stress may also affect the quality of your sleep, compounding the problem.

What you can do: Walking, meditating, and relaxation exercises and calming exercises such yoga or tai chi can all help to alleviate stress. If it starts to affect your daily life, it’s worth talking to your GP about other solutions, such as speaking to a psychologist.

5. Iron deficiency

Iron deficiency is one of many possible medical explanations for ongoing tiredness. It’s most common in women – particularly when pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating – and can be triggered by insufficient dietary intake, chronic blood loss, excessive exercise or an inability to absorb iron.

With less oxygen travelling to the cells, iron deficiency can make you feel sluggish; if left untreated, it can lead to iron deficiency anaemia, which causes breathlessness, dizziness and fatigue. If you experience any of these symptoms, visit your doctor.  

What you can do: Increase iron intake by including these foods in your diet:

  • lean beef
  • fish
  • kidney beans
  • legumes (like lentils and chickpeas)
  • eggs
  • wholegrain bread and cereals, oats and quinoa
  • nuts
  • leafy green vegetables (like spinach, silverbeet, kale and green salad leaves).

6. Thyroid issues

If your energy levels are low, your thyroid gland could be the culprit. It’s responsible for producing a hormone called thyroxine, which regulates the activity of all cells and tissues in the body. Too little thyroxine causes your metabolism to slow down (hypothyroidism).

“You may then lack energy, gain weight, develop dry skin and experience cold hands and feet,” says Dr Caroline Thew, consultant endocrinologist at Melbourne’s Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre.

If your body makes too much thyroxine, your metabolism goes into overdrive (hyperthyroidism). “This may cause unintended weight loss, heart palpitations and anxiety,” she adds.

What you can do: If you suspect you have thyroid issues, see your GP. They’ll conduct checks and organise thyroid function blood tests (and, in some cases, additional scans) to check if your thyroid is functioning normally.

“Fortunately, most thyroid conditions are usually treatable with medication,” says Dr Verma.

Get a 20% discount on a 12 month Sleepfit subscription

We want to help you build better sleep habits and improve your overall wellbeing, so we’ve partnered with Sleepfit to bring you an app that can help you identify sleep issues, recommend improvements and give you access to personalised tools.

And, eligible HCF members with hospital or extras cover can get a 20% discount on a 12-month Sleepfit subscription*. Help for a better night’s sleep – that’s Uncommon Care.

Words by Beth Anderson and Stephanie Osfield
Updated June 2022

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