There could be a larger issue at play.

By Sara Dickinson
June 12, 2020
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Getting consistent, restorative sleep is crucial to your health, but if you're feeling sluggish even when you do get eight hours or more, there could be something deeper at play. "Fatigue is related to sleep, but it is also related to many other physical, mental, and behavioral factors," explains Dr. Boris Dubrovsky of NYMetroSleep, who also adds that fatigue is quite different from sleepiness. "A person may feel physically and mentally exhausted while remaining vigilant and sensitive to stimuli that are hardly noticeable to a less fatigued, but overtly sleepy person."

Getty / JGI/Jamie Grill

It's important to note that fatigue isn't a disease, says holistic medical practitioner, herbalist, and acupuncturist Mindi Counts: "It is a symptom, not a cause. So depending on the root cause of someone's fatigue, that can guide us to better understand the impact it is having on their body." Whether your body is in defense mode, you're feeling mentally drained from your lifestyle, or you're experiencing the effects of a sleep disorder, our experts help break down why you're so tired.

Your sleep rhythm is disturbed.

"Not getting enough sleep or disturbed sleep can result in feeling fatigued during the day," explains Julie Bernier of True Ayurveda. "The body needs time to rest and replenish—to recharge its batteries—and that's the purpose of quality sleep." Enter your body's circadian rhythms, which connects your sleep cycle to the day's transition from light to dark. "We're programmed to sleep at night and be awake during the day, and going against that will negatively impact our energy, digestion, hormones, emotions, and overall health."

Remedy this, says Bernier, by going to bed and rising at times that optimize these rhythms: "While eight hours of sleep is a good rule of thumb, we need to get those eight hours at the right time. Ayurveda explains that the ideal sleep window is between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. When we go to bed by 10 p.m., we're working with the subtle energies of nature—it's easier to fall asleep. If we stay up too long thereafter, we miss a very important window for deeply rejuvenating sleep, and even if we sleep in to get eight hours, we’ll feel fatigued when we wake up."

You have a bad mattress.

Believe it or not, your old mattress may be the reason why you aren't getting enough quality sleep. If your bed is sagging, your allergies or asthma are acting up, or you're waking up with pain, it's time to invest in a new mattress. Burke Morley, the Vice President of Brand at Purple Mattress, says to think of it like this: "You spend one-third of your life in your bed. Treat your body right and invest in a mattress that will aid your health, overall."

You're consuming the wrong foods.

Healthy foods like leafy greens, whole grains, eggs, and lean meats can give us a natural energy boost and make a big difference in the amount of sleep we get at night. As for the reason why our diet impacts our sleep schedule and causes fatigue? Inflammation, says Counts. "Stress, the Standard American Diet (SAD)—which is full of highly processed foods, sugar, wheat products, and dairy—alcohol, exposure to toxins either in the environment or in food, as well as food intolerances can all lead to inflammation," she notes, which can, in turn, throw a myriad of the body's systems off kilter. "When our body is inflamed, our brain sends the signal to release cortisol to put the fire out. But you can't get the fire-dampening effect without the survival-arousal effect (cortisol gives us a boost in energy!). And if your body does this a million times a day, you are going to feel wiped out."

Dr. Dubrovsky agrees, adding that some of your favorites things—like an afternoon cup of coffee, a piece of chocolate, or a glass of wine before bed—can actually implicate your sleep cycle, causing fatigue the following day. "[Consuming these] in the afternoon and evening may cause difficulty falling asleep, midnight awakenings, or light, unrefreshing sleep," he says. "If alcohol is used as part of an unwinding evening ritual, it may produce a sedating effect at bedtime, but has a negative effect on the depth and continuity of sleep later in the night."

You have a vitamin deficiency.

Deficiencies in vitamin B12 or vitamin D are also among possible causes of fatigue, notes Dr. Dubrovsky; talk with your doctor about taking a blood test to see if that's the case. If so, your doctor may recommend supplements or adding certain foods to your diet to make up for the deficiency.

You're anemic.

Anemia causes a severe iron deficiency and leaves you without "enough healthy red blood cells to efficiently carry oxygen to the different places in your body where it is needed," says Counts. "The first and most common symptom of anemia is fatigue." Talk with your doctor if you suspect you're anemic and consider adding iron-rich foods into your diet, like beans, leafy greens, meat, and shellfish.

You need to move more.

If you live a sedentary lifestyle (which is tough to avoid with a stay-at-home order!), a lack of exercise and movement throughout the day may be causing your fatigue. To avoid feeling sluggish, get your heart pumping and increasing circulation, says Bernier. "If we're sedentary or consuming a poor diet, aiming for 30 minutes of brisk exercise a day and eating more fresh, warm food should be a priority," she says, adding that yoga and breathing exercises are also helpful.

You could have a thyroid issue.

Hypothyroidism causes a sluggish metabolism, says Dr. Dubrovsky, and leaves you drained of energy. If you're feeling fatigued and also experiencing other symptoms of hypothyroidism like weight gain, puffy face, dry skin, muscle weakness, and sensitivity to cold, consult with your doctor.

You're not in the best headspace.

Sleep disorders and mental illness go hand-in-hand: Chronic stress, grief, depression, or anxiety can leave you feeling mentally and physically exhausted. "Lack of motivation and hopelessness associated with depression can be experienced as fatigue," notes Dr. Dubrovsky.

Stress and anxiety can make our nervous system release adrenaline and cortisol, raising our heart rate to prepare our body to take action. "They both relate to the hypo- and hyper-arousal of the nervous system, our inbuilt fight-flight-freeze survival mechanism," continues Counts. If you're experiencing depression or anxiety, speak to a doctor about a treatment plan that's right for you. Whether that includes cognitive behavioral therapy, mental health counseling, or medications, these treatments can also largely impact the quality of your sleep.

You might have a sleep disorder.

"There are numerous disorders of sleep and wakefulness that can cause fatigue in multiple ways," says Dr Dubrovsky. Trouble sleeping might signal the presence of an underlying sleep syndrome, like insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or narcolepsy. Some symptoms of these sleep disorders include snoring, falling asleep or feeling tired while driving, gasping in your sleep, leg restlessness, and inability to fall or stay asleep. To find out if you have a sleep disorder, set up a sleep study with your doctor to rule out other potential causes of sleep problems and get a diagnosis.

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