Feeling tired lately? You’re not alone. Fatigue isn’t just a constant among parents of new babies where sleepless nights are a given. Virtually every parent has experienced the mid-afternoon slump or weeks (worse, months) where you never feel completely rested. In fact, fatigue is so prevalent among women that more than a quarter listed "persistent fatigue" as their number one health complaint in one survey while 80 percent listed it as one of their top 10 health concerns in another.
Yet fatigue is sometimes misunderstood. It often stems not only from lack of sleep—although sleep deprivation plays a major role—but from a host of physical and emotional factors. Although persistent tiredness can be a symptom of disease (conditions like anemia, thyroid disease and depression come to mind) the culprit is likely to be lifestyle-related. And for most women, that means factors like stress, lack of sleep, poor nutrition and juggling too many things at once. (Hmmm, sound familiar?)
Obviously an overloaded schedule or day after day of little sleep will leave you feeling exhausted. But there may be other, more hidden factors at work as well. Even if you can’t ditch your job or hire a live-in nanny, you can combat fatigue by examining your life for these common causes:
Check your plate
We think of food as a source of energy, but food allergies play a bigger role in causing fatigue than most people realize, says Dr. Ronald Hoffman, author of Tired All the Time: How to Regain Your Lost Energy. "Food allergies and intolerances are extraordinarily pervasive," says Hoffman. While most of us don’t suffer from obvious, life-threatening allergies, "there are a lot of people who are allergic to common foods such as wheat and dairy products," he says. "By eliminating those foods they feel lightened up, less sluggish and less lethargic."
Why? Food reactions cause the release of histamine into the bloodstream. While histamine produces "typical" allergic reactions like sneezing and itchy or burning eyes, it can also cause mood changes and fatigue. People who are sensitive to certain foods can also experience an almost opiate-like effect that also causes tiredness, he says. If you suspect you may be sensitive to a certain food, eliminate it from your diet and then reintroduce it over a period of time. Although you may feel irritable the first couple of days without it, you should notice a difference in your energy level by the fourth day if a food sensitivity is part of the problem.
Assess your office
Exhausted after a day at work? It may not be your job, but your office that’s wearing you out. While we can control our living environment at home, at work we may be exposed to a host of airborne substances that can cause fatigue. For example, millions of us are allergic to molds, mites and pollens and may experience fatigue, malaise and depression due to exposure to them while unaware of the cause, says Hoffman.
So-called sick building syndrome is no myth. In a "sick" building, concentrations of harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde can be many times higher than normal because the air is continually re-circulated. Office ventilation ducts, laced with mold, and other airborne chemicals contribute to the problem. If your fatigue worsens at the office, talk to your supervisor about the adequacy of the ventilation in your building or see an allergist to screen for undiagnosed allergies and to explore your treatment options.
Get regular exercise
More than 70 percent of people polled several years ago say they’re too tired to exercise. Yet working out, which reduces stress and anxiety, in turn decreasing fatigue, is an effective energy-booster. "Exercise is a great stress reliever," says exercise physiologist Cyndi Ford of the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research. "Even moderate to somewhat vigorous activity will suffice. You can start with moderate activity like a 12- to 15-minute walk and build up to 30 minutes a day as you increase strength and endurance."
Aerobic exercise increases the flow of blood to the brain, which makes you feel more alert—and studies suggest that regular exercise may also improve sleep quality and make it easier to drift off. Make time for a 15-minute walk three times a week, and you’ll see an improvement in your energy level in two to three weeks.
Check your medicine cabinet
Medication may also be a culprit. Many medicines, including blood pressure medications and over-the-counter allergy medicine, may make you feel tired. And you can’t always rely on the label to determine whether your tiredness is in fact drug-related—if fatigue isn’t a relatively common side effect, it may not be included. If you have become more tired since taking prescription or over-the-counter medicine (or increasing your dose), talk to your doctor or pharmacist about an appropriate substitute.
Get your vitamins
If you’ve been surviving on fast food, you may need to improve your diet. "There are nutritional components to fatigue, such as undernutrition vis-à-vis specific nutrients that have an impact on energy, primarily B vitamins and iron," says Hoffman.
Shortages of the following nutrients can all contribute to fatigue:
n iron, which delivers oxygen to working muscles
n vitamins B2, B6 and B12, which all help break down carbohydrate, protein and fat in the metabolic process to unleash energy
n vitamin E, which supports a healthy cardiovascular system and is a potent anti-oxidant
n magnesium, which helps your body convert food into energy
n zinc, which assists in the growth and repair of cells, particularly muscle cells.
Consider taking a multivitamin to ensure that your body gets what it needs.
Fuel your body
Even if you make healthful food choices, you may not be eating enough. "I’d say the second main reason for fatigue in women is under-consumption of calories, which is basically self-imposed starvation," says Kristine Clark, director of Sports Nutrition at Penn State University. Frequent dieters may be especially prone to fatigue because their bodies don’t have enough fuel to operate at peak efficiency.
The average 140-pound woman should eat about 1,500-1,700 calories a day, regular exercisers about 1,800-2,000, says Clark. Consuming significantly less than that will leave you feeling tired—and cranky. If you want to lose weight, limit loss to one to two pounds a week and increase your activity level.
Thinking of boosting your energy with a chocolate bar? Think again. "Sugar has a paradoxical effect on the body," says Hoffman. "It is an energy food and it’s good for quick energy, but the flip side of that is a corresponding drop in energy afterwards. It’s a hypoglycemic reaction and if you have low blood sugar, you really feel tired and ‘brain dead’." (See sidebar for a list of energy-boosting snacks.)
OK, you can’t drop everything for a much-needed vacation. But you can take breaks during the day that will boost your physical—and mental—energy. Whether you are a mom who works outside of the home or stays home full time, it’s normal to feel both mentally and physically fatigued occasionally.
To combat this, develop your own list of quick pick-me-ups. Retreat to a quiet room and listen to some relaxing music, burn an aromatherapy candle or focus on your breathing by inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply for several minutes. At the office, take five minutes to walk the stairs or brew yourself a cup of herbal tea. When you’re harried, even five minutes alone can be transforming.
If fatigue has become your constant companion, take a closer look at your life. Understanding why you’re suffering from fatigue is the first step in fighting it.
But if you’re unable to pinpoint a cause or nothing you do seems to help, talk to your doctor. Life is too short and too precious to squander it being tired.
Kelly James-Enger is a mom living in Downers Grove and a freelance writer specializing in nutrition, women’s health and fitness.