Fatigue: Life on the run or a sign of something more serious?

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Fatigue is a feeling of constant tiredness or weakness and can be physical, mental or a combination of both. It can affect anyone, and most adults will experience fatigue at some point in their life.

Being a mom is hard work. We juggle our careers, our households and our children. Between rushing for school lifts and extra-murals, stocking the pantry and sending off that vital work email somewhere in-between, it’s no surprise that most of us moms feel burnt out at some stage. It’s normal and it’s expected. But how do we know when “mom fatigue” is not perhaps something more?

There are many potential causes of fatigue which can be divided into three general categories: lifestyle factors, physical health conditions and mental health issues.

Common lifestyle factors that can cause fatigue

  • Lack of sleep: Typically, adults need about eight hours of sleep each night. Most of us find that we are cutting back on sleep in order to cram more into the day. Also, as parents, we often compromise on sleep just so that we can have some “grown-up time” after the kids have gone to bed.
  • Alcohol and drugs: Alcohol is a depressant drug that slows the nervous system and disturbs normal sleep patterns. Other drugs, such as cigarettes and caffeine, stimulate the nervous system and can cause insomnia.
  • Sleep disturbances: Disturbed sleep may occur for a number of reasons, for example, noisy neighbours, young children who wake in the night, a snoring partner, or an uncomfortable sleeping environment. There is also a subset of sleep disorders (for example sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome) which can impair sleep quality and fall under medical conditions.
  • Lack of regular exercise and sedentary behaviour: Physical activity is known to improve fitness, health and well-being, reduce stress, and boost energy levels. It also helps you sleep.
  • Poor diet: Low-kilojoule diets, low-carb diets or high-energy foods that are nutritionally poor don’t provide the body with enough fuel or nutrients to function at its best. Quick-fix foods such as chocolate, sweets or caffeinated drinks only offer a temporary energy boost that quickly wears off and worsens fatigue.

Studies suggest that psychological factors are present in at least 50% of fatigue cases. These may include:

  • Depression: This illness is characterised by severe and prolonged feelings of sadness, dejection and hopelessness. People who are depressed commonly experience chronic fatigue. You may be depressed if you are also experiencing changes in appetite, reduced libido, lack of enjoyment in life, poor focusing ability, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, or any thoughts about harming yourself.
  • Anxiety and stress: A person who is chronically anxious or stressed keeps their body in overdrive with an increase in levels of stress hormones. These hormonal changes will impair one’s energy levels.
  • Grief: Losing a loved one causes a wide range of emotions including shock, guilt, depression, despair and loneliness.

If you’ve made efforts to address the most common lifestyle causes, such as lack of rest, poor eating habits and stress, without success, and your fatigue is ongoing, make an appoint with your doctor.

You should also make an appointment with your doctor if you’re feeling fatigued and you:

  • can’t think of anything that might account for your fatigue
  • have experienced unexplained fevers
  • have unexplained weight loss (not due to dieting)
  • feel intolerant to colder temperatures
  • regularly have trouble falling or staying asleep
  • believe you may be depressed

Your doctor will examine you and order tests, based on history and clinical findings, in order to exclude common medical causes of fatigue. These medical causes could include: anaemia, hormonal disorders such as thyroid, menopause and Addison’s disease, lung disorders including emphysema/COPD, heart conditions, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome and post viral fatigue, cancers, chronic infections, side effects of medications, and sleep apnoea.

“If you’ve made efforts to address the most common lifestyle causes, such as lack of rest, poor eating habits and stress, without success, and your fatigue is ongoing, make an appoint with your doctor.”

Two relatively common conditions which are easy to diagnose and treat are anaemia and hypothyroidism.

For women in their childbearing years, anaemia is a common cause of fatigue. Simply put, anaemia is a condition in which your body doesn’t have enough red blood cells. It can be due to blood loss or decreased production of red blood cells. Poor intake of iron (or folate and B12) coupled with regular blood loss via menstruation, makes younger women more susceptible to anaemia.

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that sits at the base of your neck. It helps set the rate of metabolism, which is the rate at which the body uses energy. If your thyroid is underactive, you will present with symptoms of a slow metabolism (fatigue, weight gain, low mood, cold intolerance, constipation).

Sometimes we take medications for other conditions and don’t realise the side effects may include fatigue. Certain painkillers and antihistamines are two examples out of many. It is important to disclose to your doctor any medications you are taking, including over-the-counter drugs.

 Sleep apnoea is an insidious cause of fatigue. Patients believe they have slept well through the night and cannot understand how they wake up exhausted. Sleep apnoea is a condition where snoring is associated with periods of stopping breathing. This results in dips in the body’s oxygen levels at night and results in disruption to sleep, and has an effect on cardiovascular and neurological function. Your doctor will refer you to a sleep clinic for sleep studies if your history is suggestive of obstructive sleep apnoea.

Finally, if you are a young woman of child bearing age, don’t forget a common natural cause of fatigue: pregnancy! A simple urine test will confirm if a tiny person inside you is the cause of your exhaustion.

Whatever the cause of your fatigue, be good to yourself and gentle with your body. Drink enough fluids to stay well hydrated, practise healthy eating habits, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, try to avoid known stressors, and avoid smoking and alcohol.

Also read:

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