Like many women, I wear several hats on any given day. I am a mother of three active girls, wife, daughter, sister, friend, occasional runner, volunteer and employee. I am busy, happy and fulfilled. I am also 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 we place on our bodies are often greater than the care we give it, leading to fatigue. And when our fatigue is chronic, it can feel like a never-ending cycle.
“Fatigue can be triggered by a stressful event, a temporary illness, insomnia, lifestyle changes, our job or our families,” she says. “It might cause you to feel overwhelmed; mental and physical exhaustion; joint and body pain; an inability to concentrate; irritability or depression; and can even lead to sugar cravings.”
However, once we — along with our 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 us that our problem becomes relatively simple.
Here, she tackles the five most common reasons we feel fatigued so often, and tells us how to combat them.
- Inadequate sleep
Sleep regulates our hormones, particularly melatonin. As adults, we need seven to nine hours of restful sleep per night. Our 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,” she 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 our metabolism and energy levels. It also improves our circadian rhythms, reduces stress hormones and helps to change our 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. Our 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, non-processed 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 our 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. Our 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 we speak to our doctors about our concerns about fatigue. As long as no single medical condition is determined to be causing the fatigue, they will often recommend that we 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 we should all 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, visit the Health Classes and Events page on www.sharp.com.