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Seven common causes of fatigue and low energy

Paoli Hospital August 9, 2017 Sleep
Last Updated on November 11, 2019

Worn out. Exhausted. Drained. Beat.

No matter how we describe it, we’ve all experienced that sluggish feeling. While it can be tempting to reach for an energy drink or head back to bed for a nice nap, there are healthier ways to fight fatigue.

“When we’re feeling tired, it may be because we didn’t get enough sleep the night before or we didn’t eat a good breakfast that morning,” explains Keala TeKolste, MD, family medicine physician at Main Line Health. “The first step in helping to reverse fatigue is identifying the cause.”

Following are the most common reasons we experience fatigue and how to fight it.

You’re not eating a balanced diet

Eating a meal is a process that’s meant to be enjoyed, from thoughtful preparation and cooking to how you serve it and who you share it with. But remember that, above all, food is fuel. While it’s okay to enjoy a juicy burger with friends at a sporting event or enjoy a second piece of cake at a party, you should generally look at your diet as a primary way to keep your body and mind healthy and energized.

A fatigue-fighting diet isn’t all that different from the foods your doctor would normally recommend. Opt for whole grains, produce, lean meats and complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, brown rice, beans or oatmeal. While grabbing a bag of pretzels or nuts on the go is a healthier choice than the drive-thru you should try to avoid packaged snacks, in general, and overly processed foods.

You’re dehydrated

Reaching for a coffee to keep yourself awake isn’t a bad thing but before you start brewing, ask yourself: When was the last time I had a drink of water?

“One of the telltale signs of dehydration is weakness or fatigue,” says Dr. TeKolste. “If you’re feeling tired during the day, reach for a glass of water before anything else. Fueling up on coffee, soda or energy drinks will only offer a temporary burst of energy.”

You’re exercising too much…

This is a case when there can be too much of a good thing. While staying active and prioritizing fitness is part of an overall healthy lifestyle so, too, is giving your body time to rest.

“We should be building recovery days into our workout schedule,” says Dr. TeKolste. “On the day after you try a particularly rigorous workout or target a new muscle group, grant yourself and your body some time to rest and recover.”

…or you’re not exercising enough

Maybe you’re pressed for time, recovering from an injury or struggling to muster the courage or motivation to begin working out. Whatever the reason, a lack of physical conditioning (read: a prolonged break from exercise) can make everyday tasks more exhausting. Carrying in the groceries or walking a flight of stairs might leave you feeling more winded or worn out than usual.

Regular exercise can give you the energy you need to complete these tasks and make it through the day feeling alert and energized. And you’ll sleep better at night, too—an often-overlooked benefit of regular exercise is that it can improve sleep quality.

You’re really stressed

Chronic stress can take a serious toll on your body; it’s been linked to a greater incidence of heart attack, stroke, depression, high blood pressure and headaches. As you can imagine, it also affects your sleep quality and energy levels. Stress is considered chronic when it lasts for several days or longer, or you experience several stressful or anxiety-inducing situations within a short period of time.

Chronic stress causes the body to enter a state of hyperarousal which is, essentially, a heightened state of stress or anxiety as a result of a recent professional or personal event. Unfortunately, this hyperarousal can also throw a wrench in our normal sleep cycle.

“Consider the times when you’ve woken up in the middle of the night thinking about something that happened at work or you’ve had trouble falling asleep because you’re upset about a disagreement with a loved one,” says Dr. TeKolste. “These are all events that impact our quality of sleep at night and, in turn, our alertness during the day.”

You’re tired!

Be honest: When was the last time you had a good night’s sleep? If you’re regularly going to bed late, waking up early, and prioritizing other tasks or projects over going to bed, it can start to take a toll on your performance and alertness during the day.

Make it a goal to sleep for seven hours each night and set a strict limit on hours that you’ll attend to work commitments, answer the phone or watch television. You should also focus on making your bedroom an environment that is conducive to sleep—a cool, dark, soothing environment without any electronic distractions.

A medical condition or medications you’re taking

Many of these are temporary causes of fatigue and low energy, and can be easily fixed by changing your lifestyle. But, if your fatigue or lack of energy is really affecting your quality of life or persists after making these changes, talk to your health care provider about potential medical causes of fatigue, including anemia or a thyroid issue.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.