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Tired All the Time? Here’s How to Tell Whether Your Fatigue is Something More Serious

Fatigue is common, but it can also be a symptom of more concerning health problems.

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Man feeling fatiguePhoto: Shutterstock

Fatigue happens to everyone

You don’t want to get out of bed and, once you finally do, you can’t find the energy to exercise. During the day, you lack the ability to concentrate on anything, feeling tired all the time.

Just like paper cuts and bad dreams, fatigue happens to everyone at some point. It’s a common ailment, reported by as many as one-third of people visiting their primary care physician.

In many cases, fatigue is a normal response to life circumstances: stress, a change in sleeping patterns, a heavy workload. Since we can’t always avoid these things, Dr. Tom Declercq, a professor of medicine at Belgium’s Ghent University, suggests giving yourself more rest than usual during these times to restore energy levels. “It’s very important to listen to your body when it’s asking for more sleep,” he says.

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Woman at the gym exhaustedPhoto: Shutterstock

When to talk to a doctor

But here’s the tricky thing: although fatigue can often be resolved with additional rest and lifestyle changes, it can also be a symptom of something more serious. Declercq recommends people visit their family physician if they notice any other physical changes along with feeling tired, or if their fatigue persists for more than two weeks after making lifestyle changes.

When speaking to a doctor, describing your experience of exhaustion in detail is essential for helping him or her to identify an underlying cause. Although fatigue is generally defined as a lack of energy and motivation, this can manifest as physical, mental or both. Some questions you could ask yourself before an appointment: Do you not feel refreshed even after a long night’s rest? Do you find it hard to focus on projects? Do you tire quickly when physically active?

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Tired student yawningPhoto: Shutterstock

What your fatigue might mean

Fatigue accompanied by a fever may indicate infection, while dizziness could be a sign of anemia. Laboured breathing may be suggestive of heart disease. If you feel sadness or nervousness, depression or an anxiety disorder might be causing your fatigue, and it could be improved by taking an antidepressant or starting cognitive behavioural therapy.

Fatigue that comes on suddenly, persists and is associated with unexpected weight loss or night sweats may be a red flag for cancer.

Naturally, the quality and quantity of sleep you’re getting should be considered. Poor sleep hygiene—like dozing with a pet in your bed or using screens late at night—can disturb your rest. Sleep apnea is another common culprit; the 6.4 per cent of Canadians with this condition stop breathing for at least 10 seconds at a time during their sleep.

Any amount of alcohol consumption can worsen your sleep, but the more you consume, the greater its effect. While alcohol might help you fall asleep faster, it interrupts circadian rhythms and thus is an obstacle to getting restorative rest.

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Woman feeling fatiguePhoto: Shutterstock

Signs of chronic fatigue syndrome

When does fatigue become chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)? There’s no specific diagnostic test for CFS (also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis or systemic exertion intolerance disease), but the condition is defined as a prolonged and profound fatigue that hangs around for at least six months without an identifiable cause, impairs your cognitive function and leads to debilitating exhaustion even after minor physical or mental exertion. It’s unclear how many people have CFS and what might be behind it.

While not a cure, exercise might help with persistent cases. “When people tend to have a chronic fatigue problem, it’s not a good idea to stay in your chair. It’s a lot better to move,” says Declercq.

Next, discover the best sleeping positions for a good night’s sleep.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada