Harvard Health Publications

Fight fatigue by finding the cause

Posted By Kay Cahill Allison On July 6, 2011

Feeling tired? If so, it’s not surprising. Fatigue is one of the most common problems people report to their doctors. The Health and Retirement Study of more than 17 million older people ages 51 and up reported recently that 31% said they feel fatigued.

Fatigue is a symptom, not a disease. Different people experience it in different ways. The tiredness you feel at the end of a long day or after a time zone change might feel similar to that resulting from an illness. But fatigue from stress or lack of sleep usually subsides after a good night’s rest, while disease-related lethargy is more persistent and may be debilitating even after restful sleep.

Finding the cause. How do you know if your low-energy is caused by an underlying illness or is the result of stress, poor diet, or lack of sleep? For example, could you have chronic fatigue syndrome? That is an unusual illness and an uncommon cause of persistent fatigue, says Anthony Komaroff, M.D., professor of medicine at Harvard, world-renowned expert on chronic fatigue syndrome, and medical editor of a new Harvard Special Health Report, Boosting Your Energy. About 4 to 8 of every 1,000 adults in the United States suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, which is about twice as common in women as in men. The causes of chronic fatigue syndrome are still unknown, and there is no accurate diagnostic test. However, scientists have found abnormalities in the brain and peripheral nervous system, in the immune system, and in energy metabolism in people with this syndrome.

If you feel unaccountably fatigued, make an appointment to see your doctor, especially if you feel so weary that you can’t do your regular activities as well or as often as you once did. Fatigue is a symptom of many illnesses, so try to describe your symptoms in detail to help your doctor narrow down the possible causes. How, exactly, does the fatigue feel to you? Do you have trouble concentrating? Does your body tire more quickly? Answers to these questions indicate how severe your fatigue is and whether it mainly involves muscle fatigue, brain fatigue, or both.

Medical conditions that cause fatigue. Once you’ve described your symptoms, your doctor may want to do some tests to rule out underlying causes listed here. Conditions that cause fatigue include:

  • Anemia
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Diabetes
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Infection
  • Kidney disease
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Fibromyalgia

 

For more detail about how these conditions are linked to fatigue, read an excerpt from Harvard Medical School’s Special Health Report entitled Boosting Your Energy. This new Special Health Report offers information about the causes of fatigue and how it is linked to illness. No matter what the cause, there are lots of things you can do to try to get your old energy back. To help you do this, the report includes a step-by-step plan for boosting your energy naturally.

Related Information: Improving Sleep: A guide to a good night’s rest

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