Houston traffic, climbing the corporate ladder, staying home to raise kids, our favorite TV shows available on demand 24/7, social media, girls’ night out, doctor and dentist appointments, community service, working for a living, fighting fatigue — any of these things can tire us out.
But when does simply being tired turn into something more serious?
“Fatigue is something you can’t overcome,” said Kelsey-Seybold internal medicine physician Dr. Steffanie Campbell. “If you’re tired one day because you had a bad night of sleep or you had to get up early for something, you can still function through your day. You feel tired, but it’s not debilitating. Fatigue is debilitating. It prevents you from doing normal activities. You can’t go to work, you aren’t cleaning your home, you’re not going out, sometimes you’re not bathing. It definitely interferes with your life.”
Fatigue can indicate problems caused by several medical conditions, including heart issues, kidney or liver disease, cancers or rheumatological disease, Campbell said. It might point to a viral illness that will eventually run its course, or stressors at home; medications or substance abuse.
“Fatigue is a broad term,” she said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to tease out.”
That’s why a patient complaining of excess tiredness or fatigue will typically undergo lab work.
“We’ll check for anemia and thyroid conditions,” Campbell said, “but only about 30 percent of the time those results come back positive.”
If these things are ruled out, it may be a sleep-related issue.
“Sleep deprivation is a form of torture,” Campbell said. “They use it at POW camps. That’s how they break people down. So if you do it to yourself, you’re going to start feeling terrible.”
Sometimes a deeper look at nocturnal activity is beneficial.
“Primary care physicians can distinguish between fatigue and sleepiness, but certainly one of the things they think about is sleep,” said Kelsey-Seybold sleep specialist Dr. Puneet Patni. “If they feel the patient’s symptoms have a basis in a sleep disorder, they order a sleep study to check for sleep apnea, narcolepsy, periodic limb movement disorder (restless legs) or other conditions that can result in people being sleepy during the daytime.”
While physical fatigue may be apparent, Campbell said we should also consider emotional fatigue.
“We tend to discount emotional fatigue in our society,” she said. “We don’t think about the fact that all day we are problem-solving, talking to people, running around without food, not drinking enough water. That will make you feel fatigued.”
Campbell said the SAD diet is also a fatigue factor.
“I call it the Standard American Diet,” she said. “We get a lot of bad food in our diet.”
No matter how tired you are, getting out of bed or off the couch helps.
“It generates natural endorphins, it generates a little bit of cortisol, and it makes subtle biochemical changes in the body that makes you more energetic,” Campbell said. “I describe it like this: If you have a family dog, and you never walk that dog or take it outside to play … what do they end up doing all day? They sleep. All day and all night, because that’s what their body is accustomed to. If you don’t demand that activity, the same thing will happen to you.”