You know what it feels like to wake up feeling totally unrested after a bad night of sleep, but sometimes, the signs of fatigue—and their causes—aren’t as obvious as you think. 

By Karen Asp
Updated July 16, 2019
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You don’t need a medical degree to know what being tired (even tired all the time) feels like. The symptoms are obvious, especially if you’ve had a bad night of sleep, worked through the night to get a project done, or crossed a time zone or two and are battling jet lag.

A little fatigue is even a normal part of almost everybody’s day. That’s because for about 45 to 60 minutes after eating, your body will naturally feel mildly drained. “Your body is redirecting energy to digest your food,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, a board-certified internist and author of From Fatigued to Fantastic, The Fatigue and Fibromyalgia Solution, and the popular free smart phone app Cures A-Z. Tiredness might even occur after a busy day at work or a tough workout.

While feeling rundown is an obvious end result of some of the above scenarios, there are some other symptoms of fatigue that may not be so obvious—just as some signs of stress aren’t always easily recognizable. In some cases, you could be putting your health in jeopardy if you don’t see a doc and start figuring out how to stop feeling tired. So when should you get checked? “If it’s interfering significantly with your life, get checked,” Dr. Teitelbaum says.

What symptoms might indicate you’re more tired than you realize—and that it’s not just lack of sleep? Here are five:

You fall asleep easily during the day.

If you’re falling asleep while watching TV or, worse, nodding off or dozing while driving, it's time to change your ways. “This suggests you’re not getting adequate deep sleep at night,” Dr. Teitelbaum says. To address the issue, make sure you’re getting at least eight hours a night. If you are getting adequate sleep and you still have these symptoms, check in with your doctor; sleep apnea may be the culprit.

You feel achy.

Tight muscles plus fatigue? That could be a red flag. “When your body is having an energy crisis, it causes your muscles to get locked in a shortened position,” Dr. Teitelbaum says. Muscles, after all, are like a spring and require more energy to stretch them versus contract, one reason they get tight after a workout. The combo of tight muscles and fatigue could mean that there’s a problem keeping your body from making the energy you need. To lessen the aches, try soaking in a warm bath with Epsom salts or lavender oil (or both). If you need a quicker fix, try a heading pad.

You have brain fog.

Surprise! Your gut microbiome, which some experts call your second brain, may be talking. “Forgetful moments can be a sign of an imbalanced microbiome,” says Raphael Kellman, MD, founder of the Kellman Wellness Center in New York City. The likely culprits are processed foods, antibiotics, sugar, and chemical fertilizers. To combat this, Dr. Kellman recommends loading your diet with pre- and probiotic foods—whole foods rich in inulin are great prebiotic sources and include asparagus, carrots, jicama, and leeks, while fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickled veggies are probiotic powerhouses.

You get hangry and your sugar cravings are out of control.

You might blame this on your period, but there could be another cause, namely issues with your adrenal gland, which helps your body fight stress and fatigue. “This suggests that your adrenal stress handler gland is getting fatigued,” Dr. Teitelbaum says. Try avoiding sugar (easier said than done), or make it a point to get eight hours of sleep each night to reduce cravings, which can be triggered by too little sleep. A cup of licorice tea each morning can also help, Dr. Teitelbaum says.

You have nasal congestion or irritable bowel syndrome.

Gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and even nasal congestion outside of allergies or colds could mean that Candida or yeast overgrowth is sapping your energy, Dr. Teitelbaum says. Two solutions: Avoid sugar and talk to your doctor about whether a probiotic is right for you.