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 to do about them.

Beth Anderson 
February 2019

Do you often wake up exhausted? If so, you’re not alone: around 1.5 million Australians visit their doctor each year seeking a cure for fatigue, reports Better Health Channel.

If this includes you, the chances are you’re tired of feeling tired and are keen to increase your energy levels and general wellbeing.

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 obvious one here – and for good reason. 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.

While adults are often told to aim for 7-9 hours of sleep a night, 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: First, set the scene. “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.”

He also recommends minimising device usage in the evening: change blue light settings 2 hours before bed (as blue light from devices suppresses melatonin, the hormone which helps your body get ready for sleep). And switch everything off at least an hour before bed.

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

You get energy from food, so it’s no surprise that what you eat impacts how you feel. To function properly, you need to eat both macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins), and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Micronutrients help your body absorb macronutrients. So, if your diet is mostly of macronutrients, your body struggles to process the energy you’re putting in, which leaves you feeling sleepy.

What you can do: When you’re tired, comforting carbs or a sugar hit can be tempting, but this won't help you feel better long term. Instead, boost your energy levels by eating a healthy and varied diet, suggests Dr Abhi Verma, spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

For optimal energy, that means plenty of iron-rich foods (see point 5 below) as well as low-glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates, like wholegrain bread and quinoa. “You should also aim to eat 2 servings of fruit and 5 servings of vegetables every day,” he adds.

3. Not enough exercise

It might seem counterintuitive to hit the gym when you’re tired but staying on the couch can just make matters worse. Being inactive can decondition the body’s musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems, and depress mood – all of which contribute to fatigue.

What you can do: Research from the University of Georgia found that just 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise can boost energy levels, though Dr Verma encourages slightly more. While you may not feel like it, “Try for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or walking every day”. The chances are you’ll feel more energised afterwards.

4. Stress

Whether brought on by work, relationship issues or major life events, stress can be a 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 can all help to alleviate stress. If it starts to affect your daily life it’s worth talking to your GP about other solutions.

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, who may prescribe iron supplements.  

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

  • lean beef
  • kidney beans
  • tofu
  • eggs
  • dark green leafy vegetables
  • nuts
  • foods high in vitamin C (like blackcurrants, citrus fruits, berries, kiwifruit, tomatoes, broccoli and capsicum), which helps iron absorption.

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. When it doesn’t produce enough, the body’s metabolism slows down (hypothyroidism), but when it produces too much, your metabolism goes into overdrive (hyperthyroidism). Both conditions can cause fatigue.

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

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

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