• Fatigue is a common condition that involves feeling unusually tired.
  • This may be a sign of illness and should never be ignored.
  • Fatigue may be caused by many different physical and emotional factors.
  • A healthy lifestyle, including eating a balanced diet and exercising, can help relieve and prevent fatigue.

What is fatigue?

Fatigue is a condition characterised by feeling unusually tired for no apparent reason, drained of energy or exhausted. The symptom can also lead to feelings of inadequacy, low motivation and depression. Simply, fatigue is a signal that something is wrong somewhere in the body and the body is slowing down in order to cope.

Causes of fatigue

There may be many reasons for the onset of fatigue, and the possible causes may be either physical or emotional.

Possible physical causes:

  • Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) (fatigue that lasts for six months or more) – also known as Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS) or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus or other connective tissue diseases
  • Poor diet
  • Allergies
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Leukaemia
  • HIV
  • Anaemia
  • Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
  • Menopause
  • Lack of sleep after childbirth and when taking care of young children or sick or disabled persons
  • Migraine headaches

Possible emotional causes:
  • Burnout (wearing yourself out by trying to do too much)
  • Boredom (extreme monotony or lack of interest in daily routines)
  • Change (facing a major life crisis, decision or change like divorce or retirement)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Who gets fatigue and who is at risk?

Fatigue is a very common symptom in many health problems suffered by women, but in no way does this imply that fatigue is exclusively a women’s concern and many men suffer too.

How is fatigue treated?

Once the cause of fatigue is determined, correct treatment can be provided. It is therefore important to keep track of any additional symptoms you may be experiencing, so that both physical and emotional causes can be identified and dealt with. For example, oestrogen replacement therapy can help with the fatigue that results from the loss of sleep with menopause; iron supplements can help with the fatigue that results from iron-deficiency anaemia and so on.

Home treatment and prevention

Depending on the reasons for your fatigue, the following measures may help to restore your energy levels:
  • Follow a healthy diet. Both extreme overeating and crash dieting can tax the body and lead to exhaustion. Skipping an important meal like breakfast or indulging in high fat and/or rich, sugary snacks can lead to fatigue. On the other hand, iron-rich foods, whole-grain breads and cereals, and raw fruits and vegetables contain the nutrients your body needs to avoid fatigue. It may help to keep your energy levels at a consistent level to eat five to six light meals a day, instead of three large ones.
  • Get more exercise. Keeping fit can help maintain normal, consistent energy levels, and is especially important if you work at a sedentary job. Exercise also acts as a tranquilizer, counteracting emotionally induced anxiety or weariness. If you’re feeling sluggish, try taking a brisk, invigorating walk in the fresh air.
  • Cool off. Working or playing in hot weather can drag you down, as can living or working in a warm, poorly ventilated environment. The solution to these problems is to rest in a cool, dry atmosphere as often as you can, drink plenty of liquids and open a window.
  • Rest and relax. A good night’s sleep can put the spring back in your stride and daily relaxation breaks can also restore your energy. Schedule your day to allow relaxation breaks, in which you practise deep breathing, meditation or yoga.
  • Change your routine. Nothing makes you feel stale faster than doing the same activities over and over. Try to do something novel and interesting once or more times a day. If, on the other hand, you’re on the go too much and feel over-stimulated, set aside some time for peace and quiet.
  • Lighten your workload. Delegate tasks to others when you can, both at work and at home. Ask for help when you need it from family and friends or hire help if necessary.
  • Do something for yourself. Plan time to do things that meet only your needs, not just those of others.
  • Avoid too much caffeine and alcohol and don’t use illegal drugs: these substances may feel as if they are giving you a quick "pick-me-up", but in fact they can trigger fatigue.

When to call the doctor

Fatigue can be a sign of serious illness, so always consult a doctor rather than simply trying self-help measures.

(Reviewed by Prof Helmuth Reuter, University of Stellenbosch and Tygerberg Academic Hospital)

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