Tiredness: when is it a symptom to get checked out?
Tiredness isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom – and one we’ve all suffered at some point. There may be an obvious cause, like jet lag or disturbed nights. But if your tiredness doesn’t settle or is affecting your life, it’s worth getting it checked.
Some medicines can disrupt sleep and others can make you tired; check the patient leaflet or see your pharmacist if it does. Did you know exercise is amazingly effective at reducing tiredness from all sorts of causes? But avoid exercising just before bed.
Interestingly, more than half of people seen by a doctor for tiredness don’t turn out to have a physical cause for it. Tiredness is often your body’s way of telling you to be nicer to it – stress is exhausting. Insomnia (which includes problems getting to sleep, waking up frequently or waking early) affects as many as one in three people. We all need different amounts of sleep, although six to nine hours a night is the normal ‘range’. Sleeping less, if you’re not tired the next day, is fine. Sleep apnoea means having periods of sleep where you stop breathing and then jerk awake on a regular basis. I often see men brought in by their wives, kept awake by their husband’s snoring and terrified when they keep stopping breathing. You may sleep a normal amount, but wake feeling unrefreshed.
Depression is another common cause of tiredness, and of course there is no simple blood test or scan to diagnose depression. However, if you’ve also been feeling down, depressed or hopeless, or haven’t been enjoying life as much as you were, depression could lie at the root of your tiredness. Depression can affect sleep in many ways, but many people with depression, especially seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are more likely to sleep more but still be tired.
If you see your GP with tiredness, there are some questions they’re likely to ask which can help them tease out a possible cause. They’ll probably recommend blood tests for underactive thyroid,anaemia, glucose and possiblykidney and liver function. Underactive thyroid can also cause weight gain,constipation, feeling the cold and hoarse voice.Anaemia in younger women is most commonly down to heavy periods, but poor diet or having other chronic conditions like kidney disease can also be to blame. If you’re found to have anaemia without an obvious cause, you will be referred for further tests. These will depend on your symptoms and the degree of anaemia, but could include telescopic examination of the inside of your tummy and your large bowel.
Type 2 diabetes seems to be constantly in the news these days, mostly because rates are rising so fast – someone is diagnosed with diabetes every three minutes in the UK. Type 1 diabetes usually causes severe symptoms which come on within weeks. Type 2 diabetes is a serious condition, but early symptoms are often vague and fairly mild. It’s estimated that half a million people in the UK have type 2 diabetes but don’t know it yet. Along with tiredness, you may feel more thirsty, need to pass water more often or get more minor infections like boils or recurrent thrush.
There are other ‘weird and wonderful’ conditions which cause tiredness, but being tired is very rarely the only symptom. If you have tiredness linked with other symptoms – especially weight loss, coughing up blood, passing blood when you go to the toilet, chest pain or breathlessness – you should definitely see your doctor.
If insomnia is causing your symptoms, there’s lots you can do. Losing weight and cutting down on alcohol can help with all forms of insomnia, including sleep apnoea. Alcohol may put you to sleep, but it affects the quality of your sleep, so you’ll feel less refreshed. Keeping your bedroom dark and quiet, avoiding catnaps and lie-ins and not eating too late at night will all help. Caffeine may relieve tiredness during the day, but avoid it close to bedtime.
Cutting stress can be easier said than done – start by practising saying ‘no’ when you’re asked to do one more thing. You deserve it!
With thanks to ‘My Weekly’ magazine where this article was originally published.