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 college student 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Depression and 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 2020 American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, 27.8 percent of female college student respondents reported being depressed and 19 percent male college student respondents 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.
Anemia and 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, anemia affects almost 6 percent of the U.S. population, and people who menstruate are the most at risk for both anemia and iron deficiency because of the monthly blood loss. If your organs aren’t getting enough oxygen, they can’t function properly, making you feel fatigued.
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.
How do you treat fatigue?
To treat mild fatigue, which is the fatigue most of us feel when we put our health on the back burner while we pursue our goals, you can do several things, such as:
Start sleeping better
“Everyone has a circadian rhythm, which determines how much sleep you need and when you need to sleep,” Dr. Scott says. So she suggests looking at how many hours of sleep you’ve been getting. “If you’re chronically staying up late, you should start going to bed earlier. The optimal amount of sleep is seven to eight hours a night, and you should ideally go to bed before midnight.” And your quality of sleep is just as important as your quantity.
Fuel your body better
If you’re not getting the right vitamins and minerals, your energy is going to quickly burn out. “Make sure you’re eating at least three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. And think about the quality of your food as well. You need to be getting the right kind of fuel, so pastries and fast food aren’t going to cut it,” says Dr. Scott. “Most people make the mistake of eating only carbohydrates for breakfast, such as bagels, doughnuts or cereal. While carbohydrates are a good source of energy, they digest and metabolize very quickly in your body, leaving you hungry a short time later.” She suggests incorporating protein into your breakfast, such as peanut butter, eggs or a lean meat. Try to regularly fit fruits and veggies into your diet to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need to stay energized. Eating healthy snacks throughout the day will also help you to keep your energy levels up.
According to Dr. Scott, deficiencies in iron, vitamin D3 and B vitamins can contribute to fatigue. “If you need to, take a multivitamin like Centrum or One A Day to get the vitamins you need to function,” she says. “Vitamin D deficiency is so common, especially during the winter months when there isn’t a lot of sun or in states that don’t get much sun.” Your primary source of nutrients, though should come from food: eggs, beans, dried fruits and dark, leafy vegetables tend to be rich in iron. You can get vitamin D from seafood and eggs, and B vitamins can be found in eggs and many kinds of seafood.
Constant stress without relief can take a dangerous toll on your body. Because you’re in a nonstop state of alertness, your body is unable to relax and wind down, forcing you to use all of your available energy to keep going. “If you know you’re stressed, whether it’s from finals or starting a new internship, you should try stress reduction techniques, like yoga or meditation or something that works for you to relieve stress, before going to see the doctor,” says Dr. Scott. Finding your balance by refocusing your energy and relieving stress can help you to handle stress much better the next time you’re facing it. Moreover, you’ll have the energy to keep going.
Visit the doctor to check for more serious causes
According to Dr. Scott, feeling fatigued is more than just feeling tired. “You know when your tiredness is actually fatigue when you sleep all night and just don’t feel refreshed in the morning. Fatigue is more than just feeling tired; it’s having a lack of energy all day, no matter how much rest you get,” she explains. When fatigue reaches the point where eating better or getting the right amount of sleep doesn’t work, it’s time to see the doctor to be tested for medical conditions and hormonal imbalances and determine a course of treatment to alleviate your fatigue and reclaim your energy. You will probably be tested for nutrient and hormone deficiencies, or even food allergies, which Dr. Scott says can cause fatigue. Treatment will then vary depending on the underlying cause of your fatigue, whether it’s your thyroid or a peanut allergy. Visit your primary care physician, or you can also try your campus health center or university hospital.
Marisa, a student at UNC Chapel Hill, has been dealing with fatigue since high school after a repeated bout of bronchitis. With the help of her doctor, she’s come to realize how much she needs to make sure to get enough sleep. “It’s definitely a challenge that has made me an extremely organized person. I’ve started planning my days down to the half hour, just to make sure I get enough sleep,” says Marisa.
Understanding what’s behind your exhaustion can help you to manage it, or even to overcome it. As college students, we tend to keep our calendars full with classes, extracurriculars, part-time jobs and internships, and we forget to slow down and give our bodies a chance to recuperate from our busy lives. By making a few adjustments, we can reclaim our energy and keep going strong as we pursue our goals and enjoy our lives.