Many women wear several hats on any given day. They may be a mother, partner, wife, daughter, sister, pet parent, friend, volunteer, employee — the list goes on and on. While many of these women may report they are busy, happy and fulfilled, they are equally likely to say they are exhausted much of the time.
“As parents, spouses, caregivers and professionals, women are commonly prone to fatigue,” says Dr. Catherine Sundsmo, a board-certified family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “We typically have commutes, 40-hour-plus work weeks, children, aging parents and the responsibilities of managing a household. Fatigue is a very, very common symptom that I see in my female patients.”
According to Dr. Sundsmo, the demands women place on their bodies are often greater than the care they give them, leading to fatigue. And when fatigue is chronic, it can feel like a never-ending cycle.
Why women feel fatigued
“Fatigue can be triggered by a stressful event, a temporary illness, insomnia, lifestyle changes, our job or our families,” Dr. Sundsmo says. “It might cause you to feel overwhelmed, mentally and physically exhausted, joint and body pain, unable to concentrate, irritable or depressed, and can even lead to sugar cravings.”
However, once women — along with their doctors — rule out a serious medical condition, which often can be done by collecting a basic medical history, a physical and blood work, Dr. Sundsmo ensures that the problem becomes relatively simple.
Here, she tackles the five most common reasons women feel fatigued and shares how to combat them.
- Inadequate sleep
Sleep regulates hormones, particularly melatonin. Adults need seven to nine hours of restful sleep per night. Women’s quality of sleep can be compromised by several factors, including caffeine, chronic pain, stress, hot flashes, electronics, and thrashing or snoring partners.
“The solution is good sleep hygiene,” Dr. Sundsmo says. “The bedroom is for two things only: sleeping and sex. Eating, studying, working, watching TV or using electronics all need to be done in another room.”
- Not enough exercise
Long periods of inactivity can increase the feeling of fatigue. Movement boosts the metabolism and energy levels. It also improves circadian rhythms, reduces stress hormones and helps to change body composition by increasing muscle and reducing fat.
“Did you know that those of us who exercise crave healthier foods?” Dr. Sundsmo asks. “It’s true. I recommend that you take 10,000 steps per day or do 30-plus minutes of cardio five or six days a week.”
- Poor diet
It can be hard to have good nutrition in a fast-paced lifestyle. Women’s busy schedules and limited time can lead to irregular or skipped meals, which can cause binge-eating along with carbohydrate and sugar cravings. Unfortunately, missed meals and a high-carb, high-fat diet can lead to insulin resistance and deficiency, iron and vitamin D deficiency, acid reflux, diabetes and poor sleep quality.
“We all need protein and complex carbohydrates to sustain our energy levels,” says Dr. Sundsmo. “We need well-balanced diets with vegetables, fruits and natural, unprocessed foods for valuable vitamins and nutrients.”
- Weight issues
While doctors know that poor sleep habits can contribute to weight gain, it appears that excess body fat may also affect the quality of sleep. Belly fat produces proteins that trigger inflammation, which interferes with the body’s normal processes. Obesity is also associated with sleep apnea, which can contribute to a poor quality of sleep.
“The solution to fatigue is not always a quick fix,” Dr. Sundsmo says. “It often requires lifestyle changes and a lot of hard work.”
Depression, stress and anxiety can directly cause fatigue, as well as lead to poor sleep quality, thus also causing fatigue. Fatigue often has an emotional component. Emotional stress causes higher levels of cortisol — the body’s stress hormone — which can lead to physical effects, including weight gain, inadequate sleep, a weakened immune system and poor long-term memory.
“Your instinct may be to ask for a sleeping agent to help you fall asleep,” says Dr. Sundsmo. “However, the true treatment for emotional stress is often multidisciplinary — relaxation techniques, exercise, alternative techniques such as meditation or mindfulness, and when appropriate, medication.”
Dr. Sundsmo suggests that women speak with their doctors about fatigue. As long as no single medical condition is determined to be causing the fatigue, they will often recommend that women lose weight; exercise more; reduce stress; eat a well-balanced, healthy diet; and get regular sleep. And while that list may seem daunting, it really is basic self-care that everyone should be practicing.
“As always, having a trusting, continuous relationship with a primary care physician and giving your body the support it needs is your best resource and treatment plan,” she says.
To learn more about nutrition and diet, how to manage stress, or to find a Sharp fitness class, explore our health classes and events.