Why You're Always So Tired—and What You Can Do About It
When people return to work after a vacation, there's a good chance they'll hear one comment multiple times throughout the day: "You look so well-rested!" Whether or not that's actually the case (have you tried traveling with kids and/or a partner who constantly complains?), it's become our go-to response to someone who's recently taken some time off.
And there's good reason for this: According to the National Sleep Foundation's 2020 "Sleep in America Poll," 72 percent of us feel sleepy at least two days out of the week (excluding the pockets of time right before going to bed and after waking up), and 40 percent of adults surveyed said that this persistent tiredness gets in the way of their daily activities. In other words, feeling tired seems to be our default mode, so when we appear (or at least should appear) well-rested, people notice.
But why, exactly, are we so tired all the time—and at what point should you worry, if at all? As it turns out, it doesn't always only come down to needing to sleep a few more hours each night: There are several medical, circumstantial and environmental factors that can cause different degrees of fatigue that can seriously affect your well-being. Here are some of the most common explanations for why you're always tired, along with a few smart solutions to help you reclaim your rest.
The Difference Between Sleepiness and Fatigue
When describing feelings of tiredness, we tend to use the terms "sleepiness" and "fatigue" interchangeably, but Alex Dimitriu, M.D., double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, stresses that these are actually two different things. "Definitions are important, and splitting the hair between 'fatigue' and 'sleepiness' is essential, and something I do every day in my work as a psychiatrist and sleep specialist," he says.
Sleepiness, Dr. Dimitriu explains, "is the easy one," noting that "people who are sleepy would often say they could fall asleep or take a nap at some time during the day." Problems with both the quality and quantity of a person's sleep lead to sleepiness.
Fatigue, on the other hand, is something else entirely. "People with fatigue may have low energy or low motivation, but they would not necessarily be able to fall asleep if allowed to do so," says Dr. Dimitriu.
Along the same lines, Chun Tang, MRCGP/DFFP, a general practitioner with Pall Mall Medical in the United Kingdom, points out that while feeling tired after a bad night's sleep or a long week at work is usually no cause for concern, if you feel exhausted the majority of the time, it could be a sign of fatigue. "Whereas tiredness generally subsides following a peaceful sleep or rest, fatigue is an overwhelming and prolonged feeling of exhaustion that does not improve after sleeping," Dr. Tang explains. Here's what to know about some of the potential causes for feeling tired or fatigued all the time.
Common Causes of Fatigue
The first step to dealing with constant or chronic exhaustion is to determine what's behind it. "Fatigue is a symptom with a very wide range of causes," says Katherine Green, M.D., director of the Sleep Center at UCHealth. "The challenge with fatigue is that each underlying cause has its own treatment." These include a variety of medical conditions, as well as certain circumstances and/or environmental factors.
What to Do If You Feel Tired All the Time
Once you've figured out why you're constantly fatigued, it's time to take action. If there's a medical reason for your persistent tiredness, you'll need to work with your doctor to treat the underlying issues.
"For sleep apnea, identifying the problem with a sleep study will be necessary to treat the issue, and treatments range from CPAP machines to mouth guards that you sleep with at night, to surgeries," Dr. Green explains. "For underlying medical causes like thyroid dysfunction or vitamin/hormone deficiencies, blood work will identify those causes and allow for medical treatment. The same is true for anxiety, depression, SAD, and migraines: all have specific medical interventions which will very effectively improve the symptom of fatigue, but it is important to properly identify the cause of the fatigue."
If stress is the root cause of your fatigue, Dr. Tang recommends tackling the sources of your stress—which frequently involves our jobs. "In today's fast paced society, people often feel under pressure to work long hours and undertake unrealistic workloads," he explains. "Setting boundaries for your work schedule and allotting time to relax and unwind before bed can promote a more restorative, restful sleep."
And while you're on your quest to find out what's making you tired all the time, don't forget about all the top tips for improving sleep quality, like sticking to a sleep schedule, making the time for some type of exercise, and eating a healthy diet, Dr. Blank adds.
When to See Your Doctor
Given the variety of symptoms associated with fatigue and the range of potential causes, Dr. Blank says that it's a good idea to seek medical advice if your fatigue lasts for more than a couple weeks. Alternatively, if you experience any of what she calls "red flag symptoms" along with that nagging tiredness—like chest pain, shortness of breath, persistent fever, night sweats, and/or unexplained weight loss—discuss them with your doctor right away.
Ultimately, the sooner you're able to pinpoint the cause of your fatigue, the sooner you'll be able to take the steps necessary to feel better. "Successful treatment of fatigue is going to be dependent on properly identifying the underlying reason, and the first step is talking to your doctor," Dr. Green says. "If you are getting the right amount of sleep (at least 7 hours), paying attention to sleep hygiene, and still feeling exhausted in spite of those things, then it's definitely time to talk to your doctor to figure out what is going on."