Sure, you expect to feel a little run-down when you've spent the past few weeks getting to work early and socializing with friends into the night or you've been putting in extra hours at the office finishing up a project. But what about that wrung-out, bone-tired feeling you can't seem to shake, no matter how much couch time you've clocked? If you just can't seem to feel well-rested, you might be suffering from fatigue, which is characterized as having a lack of energy and motivation rather than just feeling sleepy.
According to the Mayo Clinic, fatigue can be attributed to lifestyle factors, underlying medical conditions or psychological problems. "In a world filled with endless to-do lists, multimedia overload, eating on the run and economic tensions, many individuals are experiencing fatigue on a daily basis," says Eudene Harry, M.D, medical director of the integrative and holistic Oasis Wellness and Rejuvenation Center in Orlando, Florida.
Fatigue that persists for six months and doesn't improve with rest is called chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Studies find that CFS primarily affects women, and in addition to extreme exhaustion, symptoms include muscle and joint pain, memory problems, headaches and insomnia. "Chronic fatigue may be the epidemic of the twenty-first century," says Harry.
Whether you're plagued by the occasional bout of lethargy or your condition is more severe, read on to help determine the root cause and find out what you can do to get back on track.
7 FATIGUE CULPRITS
1. You can't sleep
The National Sleep Foundation identifies insomnia as a major cause of fatigue. Symptoms include difficulty falling or staying asleep and waking up still feeling pooped. Daytime hours are equally troublesome for insomniacs, who may suffer from excessive sleepiness, problems with concentration and memory, and irritability.
Fatigue Rx: Insomnia is usually treated with medications, but Tamara Brown Payne, Ph.D., a psychologist in Atlanta, recognizes that "sleeping pills are highly addictive." She recommends taking short naps during the day. Also, stay away from foods, beverages and activities that can overstimulate. That means avoiding caffeinated beverages within two hours before bedtime and turning off the TV and other electronic devices an hour before you hit the hay.
2. You're anemic
The condition occurs when your blood doesn't contain enough red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. When the amount of oxygen transported to the heart, brain, muscles and other organs is insufficient, it decreases the energy available to these organs. We perceive this as fatigue. Anemia is especially common among women who menstruate, particularly those who have heavy periods. Its causes include iron and vitamin deficiencies, chronic illness, cancer and sickle-cell disease.
Fatigue Rx: Simple blood tests can confirm if you're anemic. If you test positive, Danielle Huff, a registered dietitian at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, recommends consuming iron-rich foods such as liver, chicken, beef, fish, beans, lentils, spinach, oatmeal and fortified breakfast cereals. "Iron from animal sources is better absorbed by the body than iron derived from plants," says Huff. "You can assist the absorption of iron in plant-based foods by pairing them with vitamin C-rich foods, like tomatoes, oranges, bell peppers and strawberries." Huff also says to ditch caffeine when consuming these foods because it can inhibit iron absorption.
3. You drink too much
Alcohol slows down brain function, decreasing energy, focus and the ability to make decisions. Drinking liquor can also contribute to sleep issues, which further exacerbates fatigue.
Fatigue Rx: If you're trying to alleviate stress, learn to manage it in more positive ways. "Start each day with a sense of gratitude or find a thought or a mental image that makes you feel good," suggests Harry. Other stress-busters? Try laughing several times a day; getting a massage; practicing relaxation-inducing exercises like deep breathing, meditation, yoga and tai chi; and maintaining healthy friendships.
4. You have a vitamin D deficiency
Studies show a connection between deficiency in vitamin D and chronic fatigue. Huff notes the issue is common especially among people of color because the melanin in darker skin reduces our ability to make vitamin D from sunlight. This problem is worse in winter, when there is less sun.
Fatigue Rx: Although many of the best-known dietary sources of vitamin D are dairy products, Huff realizes this can be troublesome for African-Americans, since many of us are lactose intolerant. "Luckily, there are other food sources, including egg yolks, canned tuna, salmon, mackerel and cod liver oil," says Huff. For some, supplements may be the best way to normalize your vitamin D level. Talk to your medical provider or dietitian about what dose is best for you.
5. You have heart disease
Tiredness is a common early symptom of a heart attack in women, according to the American Heart Association. "If the heart isn't working optimally, then the delivery of nutrients and oxygen in the blood is compromised, and fatigue can be the result," says Harry. That's why it's so important to have any signs of unrelenting weariness checked out by your doctor.
Fatigue Rx: If your fatigue is caused by heart disease, the number one killer of women, Harry says the treatment will depend on what is causing the heart to malfunction. For example, you may be placed on medications to lower your blood pressure. Your physician may also put you on a heart-healthy diet including fish and olive oil, which contain healthy fats, to help fight inflammation; lots of vegetables; high-fiber foods, such as garbanzo beans, to maintain a healthy cholesterol level; and lean proteins to keep the heart muscle strong.
6. You have undiagnosed or uncontrolled diabetes
"Studies show that fatigue is a symptom in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes," says Harry. Fatigue can be the result of having either too high or too low blood sugar.
Fatigue Rx: If you're diabetic, managing your energy levels may be a matter of keeping your blood glucose level in check by staying committed to the diabetes management plan your health care team set for you. That means being vigilant about what you eat. For a steady energy boost, Huff advises that you watch your consumption of simple carbohydrates—such as sweets, soda and white bread—and stabilize blood sugar levels with complex carbohydrates, which are found in whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, beans, fruits and vegetables, nuts and popcorn. When they're consumed in moderation, Harry says nuts help you lose weight, lower blood pressure and even improve cholesterol levels.
7. You're taking medication
The cause of your lack of energy could be in your medicine cabinet. "Medications used for anxiety, hypertension drugs such as diuretics and calcium channel blockers, and antiseizure medications may also have a sedative effect," says Harry. But don't forget about over-the-counter pills. According to the Mayo Clinic, antihistamines, cough medicines and cold remedies may also be behind fatigue.
Fatigue Rx: If your prescription drugs are making you lethargic, talk to your doctor, who may be able to change the dosage or prescribe a different medication and/or alternative treatments.
This article was featured in the August issue of ESSENCE, on stands now.