If you’ve been feeling exhausted for months, it’s time to do something about it. We asked the experts how to tell if tiredness has gone too far.
Feeling tired is a normal part of life. Whether you’ve got a stressful job, are exercising hard, hitting the pub regularly or up in the night with a small child, many of us struggle to fully recharge. But we also know that being chronically tired (ie everyday fatigue with no specific, identifiable lifestyle cause) can be a sign that something more serious is up.
So, when should you start taking feeling exhausted more seriously? And how long should you spend yawning before making an appointment to chat to your GP?
“We all feel tired at some point,” says Dr Jenny Williams, clinical operations lead at Thriva, explaining that good old-fashioned rest is usually enough to help us recover. But for lots of people, getting more sleep isn’t cutting the mustard. “Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms people bring to their GP,” she says.
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“While it is common, that doesn’t mean it isn’t something you should put up with and seeing a GP can help,” confirms Dr Luke Powles, clinical director at Bupa Health Clinics. “For the majority of people, there isn’t an underlying medical reason for their tiredness, and it’s normally caused by non-medical issues such as stress and [poor] sleep hygiene.”
What causes excessive tiredness?
Excessive tiredness is usually caused by one or more of the following factors:
Whether it’s blue light exposure from screens, what we eat and drink at night, or trying to sleep in a hot, muggy bedroom, there are a host of things that might stop us from sleeping soundly. While you can’t really control the weather, you can tweak your bedtime routine and assess when to eat your dinner so as not to interrupt your rest.
“Vitamin D deficiency can also cause fatigue and is common during the autumn and winter months, but you can get over-the-counter vitamin D supplements to prevent this,” Dr Powles says.
Stress, anxiety and depression can all make us feel knackered – whether that’s because stress keeps us up at night mulling over our problems, or because depression can affect our the neurotransmitters responsible for energy and sleep.
Common conditions associated with fatigue include anaemia, sleep apnoea and underactive thyroid. It can also be a side effect of certain medications, pregnancy and other health issues. Extreme tiredness can be linked to other conditions including chronic fatigue syndrome or ME, both of which have extreme tiredness as a symptom.
When to make an appointment to see your GP about tiredness
Dr Powles says: “Before you visit a GP, ask yourself the following questions – it may be easier to work out why you are feeling tired and identify any changes you can make which will help.”
Am I getting enough sleep?
“If you don’t sleep well at night, you will feel more tired during the day. Whether you are worrying about things which keep you awake, have bad sleep habits or you’re suffering with insomnia, look at your sleep routine and identify any changes you can make which will help you have a good night’s sleep.”
Am I under a lot of stress at the moment?
“Coping with stress and worry can be very tiring, whether you’re dealing with a relationship break-up, stress at work or family issues. Taking steps to reduce stress can help to improve your sleep.”
What am I eating and drinking?
“What you eat and drink can affect how tired you feel. If you’re not getting enough vitamins and minerals in your diet or enough glucose in your blood this can make you feel tired and lack energy. For example, not having enough iron can cause fatigue. Thinking about when we eat is also important. Try not to eat too close to bedtime as this can impact your sleep.”
How active am I during the day?
“You may feel that you’re too tired to exercise, however, being active during the day actually helps you feel less tired and improves your quality of sleep. Try to do small amounts of exercise and then build it up so you get the benefits of regular activity.”
If you’ve adapted your sleep schedule and napping routine to provide as much downtime as possible but still haven’t had any relief from fatigue, it’s time to seek help. “It’s a good idea to see your GP if the tiredness doesn’t get better with rest or lifestyle changes, if the feeling lasts for more than a few weeks, or if it affects your life or mood,” Dr Williams says.
5 tiredness red flags that require medical attention
While tiredness can be caused by poor sleep and habits, when it’s in conjunction with other symptoms, it can be a sign of something more serious. If you’re struggling with energy, check to see if you’re also experiencing these red flags and, if so, make an appointment to see your doctor as soon as possible:
- Unintentional weight loss
- Unusual bleeding or bruising
- Feeling breathless
- Unexplained fever
- Swollen lymph nodes (little lumps in your neck, armpit or groin)
10 ways to nip fatigue in the bud, according to the experts
1. Exercise daily, even if it’s just for 10 minutes
It may sound counterintuitive, but many studies have shown that exercise boosts your energy levels. Even doing 10 minutes of exercise will help, although Dr Williams advises avoiding doing it too close to bedtime.
2. Be kind to yourself
“There is no magic cure for tiredness, especially if you’ve been feeling tired for a long time, and it may take you a while to get back to your normal self,” Dr Powles says. “Be kind to yourself; set realistic goals and make sure you are getting time to rest in between working and enjoying yourself.”
3. Stay hydrated
“Dehydration causes fatigue, as well as decreased alertness and concentration,” says Dr Williams. You want to make sure that you drink fluids when you’re thirsty (and be aware of when that thirst sets in).
4. Focus on eating a balanced, iron-rich diet
Try to pack your day with plants (follow this guide to eating your 5-a-day without breaking the bank). If you are feeling tired, try to eat at regular intervals to keep up your energy levels. Dr Powles says it’s important to eat fatigue-busting foods that are high in protein and iron, such as green leafy veg, fish, beans and nuts.
5. Limit alcohol to 14 units a week (max)
We might think that a large glass of red can help us to relax, but alcohol actually reduces your quality of sleep, leaving you more tired. Dr Williams says we should avoid drinking three hours before bed.
6. Cut caffeine by 3pm every day
Caffeine is in coffee, tea, energy drinks and even chocolate. The half-life of caffeine for most people is around six hours, so try to avoid caffeine after about 3pm if you’re planning to retire around 10pm.
7. Establish a regular sleep routine
Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day helps your body to set its internal clock.
8. Have a daily wind-down
Avoid screens in the hour before sleep and try taking up a relaxing habit in the evening that isn’t just watching Netflix. Commit to reading 10 pages of fiction in bed, journaling or drawing.
9. Assess and address stress and/or low mood
Both doctors suggest spending time looking at your stress levels and ways to reduce them, from talking therapies to practising mindfulness and yoga.
10. Get checked out by your GP
If you’re worried about tiredness, speak to a GP who will be able to look into why you may be feeling like this.
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