Sleep & tiredness

What's the difference between tiredness and fatigue?

We all experience tiredness at times, which can be relieved by sleep and rest. Fatigue is when the tiredness is often overwhelming and isn't relieved by sleep and rest.

Here are 10 health conditions known to cause tiredness or fatigue.

Anaemia

One of the most common medical reasons for feeling constantly run down is iron deficiency anaemia.

Women with heavy periods and pregnant women are especially prone to anaemia.

But it can also affect men and postmenopausal women, when the cause is more likely to be problems with the stomach and intestines, such as an ulcer or taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Typically, you feel you can't be bothered to do anything, your muscles feel heavy, and you get tired very quickly.

Sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea is a condition where your throat narrows or closes during sleep and repeatedly interrupts your breathing.

This results in loud snoring and a drop in your blood's oxygen levels. The difficulty in breathing means you wake up often in the night and feel exhausted the next day.

It's most common in overweight middle-aged men. Drinking alcohol and smoking makes it worse.

Underactive thyroid

An underactive thyroid gland means you have too little thyroid hormone (thyroxine) in your body. This makes you feel tired.

You're also likely to put on weight and have aching muscles and dry skin. It's most common in women and happens more often as you get older.

Coeliac disease

This is a lifelong disease caused by the immune system reacting to gluten. Gluten is a protein found in bread, cakes and cereals.

One in 100 people in the UK are affected, but research suggests many of them don't know they have the condition, according to patient group Coeliac UK.

Other symptoms of coeliac disease, apart from tiredness, are diarrhoea, bloating, anaemia and weight loss. Your GP can do a blood test to check if you may have coeliac disease.

Chronic fatigue syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME) is a severe and disabling fatigue that goes on for at least 4 months. There may be other symptoms, such as muscle or joint pain. 

Diabetes

One of the main symptoms of diabetes, a long-term condition caused by too much sugar (glucose) in the blood, is feeling very tired.

The other key symptoms are feeling very thirsty, going to the toilet a lot, and weight loss. You can diagnose diabetes with a blood test.

Glandular fever

Glandular fever is a common viral infection that causes fatigue, along with fever, sore throat and swollen glands.

Most cases happen in teenagers and young adults. Symptoms usually clear up within 4 to 6 weeks, but the fatigue can linger for several more months.

Depression

As well as making you feel very sad, depression can also make you feel drained of energy.

It can stop you falling asleep or cause you to wake up early in the morning, which makes you feel more tired during the day.

Restless legs

This is when you get an overwhelming urge to move your legs, which can keep you awake at night.

You might also have an unpleasant crawling sensation or a deep ache in your legs. Or your legs might jerk spontaneously through the night.

Whatever your symptoms, your sleep will be disrupted and poor quality, so you'll feel very tired throughout the day.

Anxiety

Feeling anxious is sometimes perfectly normal. But some people have constant uncontrollable feelings of anxiety that are so strong they affect their daily life. 

Doctors call this generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). It's a common condition, affecting slightly more women than men. As well as feeling worried and irritable, people with GAD often feel tired.

Lifestyle causes of tiredness

In today's 24/7 "always on" world, we often try to cram too much into our daily lives.

And to try to stay on top of things, we sometimes consume too much alcohol or caffeine, or eat sugary and high-fat snacks on the go rather than sitting down for a proper meal.

The main lifestyle causes of tiredness include:

Alcohol

Drinking too much interferes with the quality of your sleep. Stick to the guidelines of no more than 14 units a week for both men and women.

Read more about how to cut down on alcohol.

Exercise 

Too much or too little exercise can affect how tired you feel.

Read more about the benefits of exercise.

Caffeine

Too much of this stimulant, found in tea, coffee, colas and energy drinks, can upset sleep and make you feel wound-up as well as tired.

Try decaffeinated tea and coffee, or gradually cut out caffeine altogether.

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