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Always Tired? What Causes Fatigue & What To Do About It

Posted Jun 10 2013 - 9:00am
Tagged With: fatigue, physical health, sleep

As busy college students, we’re constantly on the go, and our schedules often don’t slow down even when summer hits. We have summer jobs and internships, as well as a bustling social life, and can get so caught up in our lives that we forget to slow down and get enough rest. From one bleary-eyed collegiette to another, I know where you’re coming from.

Unfortunately, all of this constant activity can really take a toll on your health. If you find yourself feeling constantly tired and unable to get motivated, you might be experiencing fatigue, which is a constant feeling of over-tiredness and exhaustion. After so long, fatigue can really put a strain on your health, and it can even be an indication of an underlying health issue.

What causes fatigue?

Dr. Tara Scott, obstetrician and gynecologist for Summa Health System and founder of Revitalize medical group, explains that most fatigue can be traced to three causes. “The top things that can cause fatigue are number one, lack of good quality sleep; number two, stress-related hormone imbalances; and number three, poor nutrition,” she says. College students are notorious for not getting enough sleep and for not eating right. Increased stress, she adds, can also play a role in your quality of sleep.

1. Lack of quality sleep.
Your body needs everything in balance in order to function properly, so losing sleep and not eating right can contribute to hormonal imbalances and make you feel fatigued. “Most college students don’t get enough sleep, maybe four or five hours a night, and this can be a temporary cause of fatigue,” Dr. Scott says. “You really need seven to eight hours of sleep. Not giving the proper amount of sleep over time can mean that you’re going to start feeling fatigued.”

2. Stress-related hormone imbalances.
Have you taken on so many activities that you can’t get a break? Or that upcoming final has you biting your nails? “Most college women start having problems with their periods due to stress and really heavy bleeding, or not getting their periods at all, and they’re feeling fatigued,” says Dr. Scott. Your body’s natural processes can get disrupted from stress, and problems with your period can often be a sign that you’re over-stressed.

Constant stress wreaks havoc with the hormone cortisol in your body. Cortisol increases your blood sugar levels to give you energy, and a constant level of stress means that you could quickly be running on empty. According to Dr. Scott, cortisol can also mess with your ability to sleep, which can contribute to your feelings of fatigue. Your body isn’t meant to be on high alert all of the time.

3. Poor nutrition.
When you’re living on a college budget and always on the go, you find yourself living off Ramen noodles and fast food a majority of the time. “I was terrible with my eating habits in college too,” Dr. Scott admits. “College students tend to be poor so they go with what’s cheap, which is usually fast food, and the quality of your food really becomes noticeable here in terms of nutrient intake.”

Fast food might make you feel full, but you’re getting mostly empty calories and loads of fat, salt and sugar with few actual nutrients that your body needs to function. “The body needs fuel just as your car needs gas. If you’re not eating enough carbohydrates, you may not get enough energy,” she explains. “By the same token, if you don’t eat enough protein, you don’t have a lasting fuel source. The body is complex, so every vitamin and mineral is important for chemical processes. A diet full of fast food will not give the same nutrients as one full of whole foods.”

4. Depression & Anxiety.
Briana, a senior at Georgia College, has been dealing with fatigue for nearly four years. “I've suffered from fatigue as a result of depression and anxiety, though I haven't officially been diagnosed with fatigue,” she says. “No matter how much sleep I get, sometimes all I want to do is sleep for an entire day. I take naps, too. The fatigue causes me to often feel unmotivated, to the point where it's difficult to get things done.”

She’s not alone. According to the latest statistics from the fall 2012 American College Health Association–National College Health Assessment, 12.2 percent of female college students reported being depressed and 7.2 percent male college students also reported dealing with depression.

“Depression is a sub-heading under hormone imbalances, and fatigue is one of the symptoms of depression,” says Dr. Scott. Cortisol contributes to your mood, so if your cortisol levels are being altered due to stress or physical causes, you can find yourself depressed and fatigued until you speak to a medical professional to determine the cause and work to correct the imbalance.

5. Anemia & Iron Deficiency.
Fatigue can also be a symptom of low red blood cell levels, a condition known as anemia. The red blood cells deliver oxygen to your organs, which keeps them functioning the way they should, so decreased levels are a cause for concern. “Doctors will take blood tests to check your blood count and iron levels to see if you’re anemic or deficient in iron,” Dr. Scott says.

According to WebMD, an estimated 3.5 million Americans are affected with anemia and iron deficiency, and women are the most at risk for both because of our monthly blood loss during menstruation. If your organs aren’t getting enough oxygen, they can’t function properly, making you feel fatigued.

6. Thyroid problems.
Your metabolism and energy levels are largely controlled by your thyroid, a gland located in the front of your neck. “Thyroid problems running in the family are not uncommon, so doctors will also check your thyroid to see if your fatigue is caused by imbalances there,” Dr. Scott says. Because of its importance in how your body uses energy, problems with your thyroid can result in feeling fatigued if your thyroid isn’t regulating its release of hormones properly or is out of whack due to other issues, such as an autoimmune disease or cancer.

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