Always fatigued? Fatigue can signal an underlying medical problem, such as anemia, diabetes, hypothyroidism or hepatitis C, among other conditions.
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But once your doctor rules out major medical causes for your fatigue, it’s time to consider hidden ones. “As a wellness physician, I look for the less obvious roots of fatigue — that’s my job,” says Brenda Powell, MD.
Hidden causes of fatigue may include:
1. A junk food diet
Diets that are high in trans fats, saturated fats, processed foods and added sugars can sap your energy. Dr. Powell recommends switching to a diet high in good sources of protein — mainly fish, nuts, seeds and beans — with eight to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
Watch out for grains, though. These complex carbs affect insulin. “Insulin is the storage hormone that makes us heavier. The heavier we are, the higher our blood sugar becomes, and the more insulin resistance (prediabetes) we develop,” she says.
2. Lost/missing nutrients
Today’s industrial farming practices may rob the soil of key fatigue-fighting minerals, some experts say.
To enjoy the greatest benefit from the foods you eat and to optimize your energy, make sure you’re always eating a healthy, well-balanced diet — and never skip meals.
3. Not enough omega-3
Try to incorporate foods in your diet that provide beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. “There is evidence that omega 3s help to reduce depression, which can make you feel fatigued,” says Dr. Powell.
Foods rich in omega-3 include seafood, cold water fish, leafy greens, chia seeds and ground flax seed. Try to work more of these foods into your diet.
4. Vitamin D deficiency
Some research suggests a link between low levels of this vitamin, low energy and depression.
“Vitamin D is made in our skin through sunlight and is one of the few vitamins not available in food. If you live in an area with low levels of sunlight, talk to your doctor about vitamin D supplements. Take 1,000 units of vitamin D daily if you don’t live in a sunny climate,” says Dr. Powell.
5. Poor sleep
When it comes to sleep difficulties, “we’ve got the perfect storm happening in our 40s and 50s,” says Dr. Powell. Reasons for lost sleep include increased work responsibilities, living with teens, aging parents and stresses of daily life.
For women, menopause and perimenopause are also factors. Falling levels of progesterone (a female hormone that helps with sleep) and hot flashes can cause insomnia.
A change in caffeine metabolism doesn’t help. Other reasons for lost sleep are stimulants in diet such as coffee and tea can also affect your sleep. A daily 30-minute walk is the best thing you can do to promote better sleep.
6. A sedentary lifestyle
If healthy changes in your diet and sleep don’t alleviate your fatigue, look at how much time you spend sitting. Ironically, not getting enough exercise can make you feel tired, says Dr. Powell.
Incorporating daily exercise into your life will boost your energy, as well as your mood and your fitness level.
Feel like you live in a pressure cooker? “Stress can make you feel fatigued,” says Dr. Powell.
Sometimes you can reduce the stress in your life through conscious choices. You can choose to participate in fewer activities, or downsize a home that’s expensive to maintain, or avoid certain people or situations.
But sometimes stress can’t be avoided. Relaxation training, a meditation or yoga practice, and other techniques can help you manage stress, relieve tension and enjoy more peace.