by Heather Mundt
So much is required of parents to get through the day, from readying children in the morning to feeding them meals and snacks, and then preparing them for sleep at night. In between, add in tantrums, illnesses, homework, chores, work, personal lives, and other responsibilities, and parenting feels, in a word, exhausting. But at what point is exhaustion caused by more than daily parenting demands?
There are two key factors in determining that, says Dr. Amy Huebschmann, a primary care physician and associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Center for Women’s Health Research. “The first thing is, when your feelings of fatigue have no clear explanation, and the second reason is when fatigue levels are making it difficult to function in your everyday life,” she says. “For example, if you find yourself becoming fatigued despite getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night and without any significant life stressors, then it is appropriate to go see your doctor to see if there is a medical diagnosis to explain your fatigue.”
“If you have fatigue that’s out of the ordinary and you’re not feeling right, definitely go and get checked,” says Dr. Amy Johnson, an obstetrician/gynecologist at UCHealth in Longmont. “It’s critical to go in and rule out important things before you decide if (fatigue is) caused by lifestyle choices.”
Following are five common reasons you may be tired, varying from easy-to-fix mineral deficiencies to life-threatening conditions that can require medical invention. Take note in case you’re feeling extra tired.
An essential mineral that helps transport oxygen to the body, iron is critical to the body’s ability to function properly. A lack of iron may lead to anemia, resulting in a general weakness and pallor. “Iron-deficiency anemia occurs when low iron levels cause an inadequate production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to working muscles during exercise, and this condition is very common in women who are menstruating, especially if they have heavy periods,” Huebschmann says.
The fix: A simple blood test will determine an iron deficiency, which can often be remedied by taking an iron supplement. Because too much iron in the body can also be harmful, you should always consult with your doctor before taking increased iron supplements.
A butterfly-shaped, hormonal gland that sits low in the front of the neck, the thyroid helps regulate the body’s metabolism. If it’s not functioning properly—whether underactive, “hypothyroidism,” or overactive, “hyperthyroidism”—you’ll likely feel tired.
“If you present to your doctor with fatigue…definitely you need to rule out anything contributing to it that is medical,” Johnson says. “And thyroid disorders would fall into that category.”
Fatigue caused by a thyroid imbalance is often accompanied by a variety of other symptoms, such as feeling too cold or too hot, feelings of depression or anxiety, changes to hair and skin, and unexplained weight loss or gain.
The fix: A blood test can reveal thyroid problems, which may be treated with replacement thyroid hormones or more complex interventions like radiation.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps the body absorb calcium and other minerals. This vitamin is made in the body when skin is exposed to sunlight. With more people avoiding the sun and using sunscreen, Johnson says, deficiencies are common. “We have found that, in general, people are deficient in Vitamin D, so I recommend a supplement because it can lead to fatigue,” Johnson says.
The fix: A blood test can determine a Vitamin D deficiency. Taking supplements offering the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)—600 IU (International Unit) per day for men and women ages one to 70, according to the National Institutes of Health—can help. Another easy fix, Johnson says, is heading outside every afternoon for at least 20 minutes.
Although heart disease is often considered a man’s disease, Johnson says, “It’s the number-one killer of women.” Causing approximately 1 in 4 female deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly half of women (46 percent) don’t realize their risk of suffering from heart disease.
The top three risk factors, says the CDC, include high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and smoking. Other risk factors include diabetes, obesity, poor diet, lack of physical activity, and excessive alcohol.
But Johnson says a family history of heart disease and fatigue during physical activity are important signs as well. “Those two things should prompt you to see a physician,” she says.
The fix: If you have a family history of heart disease and some risk factors, get your heart checked to determine if that’s the source of your exhaustion.
Another important cause of fatigue that’s critical to identify and treat, Huebschmann says, is depression. “Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are common underlying causes of fatigue symptoms,” she says. “Major depression and anxiety are particularly common in women, and both may cause fatigue both by disrupting sleep and through other mechanisms.”
It’s one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. In 2014, about 15.7 million adults age 18 and older—roughly 6.7 percent of all American adults—experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year.
It can be challenging to diagnose quickly, Huebschmann says, if patients and doctors don’t recognize the emotional symptoms of sadness or irritability that accompany the fatigue symptoms.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it’s a complex illness that typically involves more than feelings of sadness including aches or pains, headaches, and cramps or digestive problems, in addition to experiencing trouble with sleeping, waking up in the morning, and feeling tired.
The fix: Experts agree there’s no “one size fits all” remedy, but it typically includes a combination of medication and therapy. “If you or someone you know ever needs urgent evaluation for depression or other mental-health issues, you can make a free phone call to identify how to get help,” Huebschmann says. Call 844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255, or visit coloradocrisisservices.org to research mental-health resources.
Heather Mundt is a freelance writer and mother based in Longmont.