We’ve all been tired. It’s a part of life, and it’s our body’s way of telling us it needs to recharge. Sometimes, though, the tiredness seems to stick around, and no amount of rest can make it go away. This is when words like “fatigue” and “exhaustion” come into play, and a simple, everyday consequence of living becomes a crippling problem.

The online Oxford Dictionary defines fatigue as “Extreme tiredness resulting from physical exertion or illness.” So, when does normal tiredness cross the line into fatigue? Almost like the kind of exhaustion that possibly needs to be addressed by a physician? If your level of exhaustion interferes with your quality of life and your ability to attend to normal duties associated with your work and home life, a full exam is necessary. However, there are no uniform guidelines. Tolerance is always subjective, so if you have any doubts or questions about whether or not something is normal it is always best to seek the advice of a medical health professional.

Fatigue can exist in and of itself because of continued overexertion, it can coexist with or be a symptom of underlying issues, or it can be a side effect of medications used to treat any number of disorders. Just as there is no easy explanation of cause, there is no generic solution to be applied across the board.

Physical Causes of Fatigue

Let’s start with the simplest causes. These are the issues that are most controllable and easiest to remedy and would include things like overexertion, poor eating habits, and poor sleep habits. These are mostly things that don’t require investigation to discover…someone generally know if they are working too hard or not eating properly. Knowing what the issue is and taking steps to remedy said issue are two entirely different things, however.

Activity Level

 We generally think of fatigue as a natural result of a high level of physical activity. It is the expected result of exertion, either in bursts, such as a professional athlete in a performance, emergency services personnel in a crisis, or even mowing a lawn with a push mower. Some types of employment are, by nature, more physically demanding than others. Normally this type of exhaustion is remedied with rest; a day off or a few days’ vacations and the body resets itself.

It is important to note that lack of physical activity can result in fatigue as well, and this one is perhaps not so neatly taken care of. The issue often has a direct correlation with the type of employment. We live in a digital age, and as a result, a large number of jobs are considered passive. According to Leonor Crossley of Bizfluent, a job is classified as sedentary if the employee spends “the majority of their shifts sitting, lifting no more than 10 pounds and standing and walking no more than two hours of an eight-hour workday.” Most sedentary jobs do require a high degree of alertness, so the effect on the body is twofold. Continuous mental exertion in and of itself will cause fatigue, resulting in a lower concentration. The brain also needs adequate oxygen to remain alert, and this is where a lack of physical activity plays a part. The less physically active we are, the lower our production of red blood cells. Red blood cells carry nutrients, glucose, and oxygen throughout our body to allow it to function properly.

This is why it is often advised to take short breaks every few hours if you are stuck at a desk. WebMD cited a study done by California State University in Long Beach, CA, which asked whether people were more energized by a high sugar or high carbohydrate snack, or by a quick walk. The snack gave an energy boost quicker, but the body burns through this fuel quicker. Participants actually had lower energy levels after an hour. By contrast, the participants who went on a 10-minute walk saw an increase in energy for up to two hours afterward. Sugar and carbohydrates will give a more immediate burst of energy, but that also comes with the inevitable sugar crash (sometimes known as the 2 o’clock slump or mid-afternoon slump…misnomers because this slump can hit any time of day if you’ve been sitting at a desk for a while without a break.) There are some people who won’t take breaks because they fear it will cut down on their productivity, but in actuality, the opposite is true. Regular breaks can actually increase productivity because it refreshes the brain and, thus, concentration and thinking. Author Nir Eyal told Psychology Today that the part of our brain that drives us to complete our goals, but for particularly difficult tasks or goals, a quick activity break may “renew and strengthen motivation later on.”

There is also the growing problem of people needing to work more than the standard 40-hour workweek at one job or must work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet, and thus adequate rest has become a rare commodity. According to one statistic reported by Business Insider, in the United States alone, more than 7.6 million workers were holding multiple jobs at the time that the article was published in August 2017. Economist Komali Sri-Kumar pointed out that the main reason people have multiple jobs is that no single job they hold provides a livable income. He goes on to add that in a thriving economy, there should be an increase in the number of full-time employees and a decrease in the number of part-time employees or employees holding multiple jobs. What does this have to do with fatigue? It means more and more Americans are prone to fatigue due to lack of opportunity to rest, and fatigue can lead to more health problems. For this reason, we must learn to recognize when we cross the line between being “just tired” and feeding a serious health problem.

Nutrition

The second thing that must be considered when looking to treat constant exhaustion is diet. Our society is increasingly dependent on highly processed foods. Burgers, hot dogs, and other items on the menus of fast-food restaurants have become staples in western society. Microwave meals are also increasingly popular as they can be grabbed for lunch with no packing necessary and very little preparation to be ready to eat. All of the above mentioned are likely high in carbohydrates, sugars, and salts and are a poor source of many other essential vitamins. Vitamin deficiencies are a crucial cause of fatigue and one that can usually be remedied by paying more attention to what we eat. Additionally, this nutrient-poor diet can lead to heart disease, hypertension, and stroke, all of which can result in fatigue.

When and how often we eat also has an effect on our metabolism. A metabolic rate that is too slow (metabolic rate being how quickly your body breaks down food and turns it into energy.) Some of our metabolism is inherited, dictated by genetics, gender, and age, but some are influenced by exercise and dietary habits. Dietitians often recommend eating smaller meals more frequently. This can help speed up the metabolism and also helps the body regulate blood glucose better by preventing sharp rises and drops. Having high or low blood glucose levels can cause fatigue directly, thus a person suffering from diabetes will be more at risk for having issues with fatigue. High sugars will thicken the blood, slowing circulation, impairing the delivery of oxygen and nutrients. It can also cause inflammation. Low sugars can also cause fatigue simply because glucose, fuel for the body, is in lower supply.

To Be Continued next week…

AUTHOR: Jen Rulon

I am Jen Rulon, a Coach, Kona Finisher and a Public Speaker. I’ve been coaching triathletes for 18+ years and I received my Masters in Kinesiology with an emphasis in Exercise Science. I train triathletes to reach their potential and coach triathlon coaches to successfully grow their businesses using my own proven methods. I currently work with women on finding their own voice and journey to finding their "Champion Status" in their own eyes! My knowledge has been featured in Triathlete Magazine, Runners World, on the TEDx Stage, the Health and Wellness Expo in San Antonio, TX, Men’s Journal Online, and the New York Times. I also practice what I preach — I’m a 15x Ironman Triathlete who participated in the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii on October 14, 2017.

1 Comment
  • Susan Wallace

    Great first part – thorough and thoughtful!

    May 27, 2020

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