Why Do You Feel So Tired? There Could Be a Serious Illness Behind Your Exhaustion


Struggle to get out of bed this morning?

You’re not alone. Chronic tiredness is one of the most common reasons people go to their GPs. At any time, one in every five people feels unusually tired and one in ten has prolonged fatigue.

Of course, feeling exhausted or run down could be down to the breakneck pace of our 24/7 lifestyle, which can play havoc with sleeping patterns.

But, adds Professor Steve Field, a Birmingham GP: ‘Doctors must not exclude the possibility of serious illness.’

He explains: ‘Tiredness itself is not an illness, but rather will be the symptom of a condition – whether it’s physical, psychological or social.

‘But if this doesn’t appear to be the case, it could be that being tired is due to an underlying medical problem.’

Here, with the help of a range of experts, we examine what could be causing your tiredness, according to which of the following descriptions fits you best…


OTHER SYMPTOMS: Swollen ankles, feet, legs, stomach and veins in the neck; chest pain after heavy meals or exercising.

POSSIBLE CAUSE: Cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle. This causes the heart walls to thicken, particularly in the left ventricle, which is the main pumping chamber – as a result, the heart stops pumping blood effectively round the body.

‘As the heart muscle isn’t working properly, there is less oxygen circulating around the body, which is why the condition causes such tiredness,’ says Robert Hall, a cardiac nurse and medical director of the charity Cardiomyopathy UK.

The condition can be inherited, or triggered by heart disease or even an infection. Around 125,000 Britons suffer from it and, untreated, it can be fatal.

TREATMENT: Drugs known as ace inhibitors improve the symptoms by relaxing the blood vessels, improving blood flow from the heart. Beta-blockers can also reduce the heart’s workload and increase its efficiency.


OTHER SYMPTOMS: Dry mouth, constipation or diarrhoea.

POSSIBLE CAUSE: Many people think allergies such as hay fever cause fatigue but, in fact, what makes sufferers tired is their anti-histamine medication, says Barry Kay, emeritus professor of allergy and clinical immunology at London’s Imperial College.

‘These drugs act on receptors in the brain that make you feel sleepy.

‘That’s why it’s vital not to give children some of the so-called older generation antihistamine tablets for allergies at exam time.’

A 2007 study by the charity Education for Health found that nearly three-quarters of students taking hay fever medication could expect to drop a grade in their exams.

TREATMENT: Older forms of antihistamine, such as Piriton, though highly effective at treating allergies, are more likely to make you feel tired.

‘Newer drugs such as Zyrtec or Claritin have a less sedating effect,’ adds Prof Kay.


OTHER SYMPTOMS: Loss of body hair, loss of bone mass (leading to fractures), loss of libido and difficulty concentrating.

POSSIBLE CAUSE: In men, the trigger could be low levels of the male hormone testosterone. When levels drop, it can cause a loss of muscle mass, so the sufferer would feel tired whenever they do any physical activity, says Dr Mark Vanderpump, consultant endocrinologist at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Low testosterone, caused by a condition known as hypogonadism, affects about five in 1,000 men. The cause isn’t known, although it can be genetic.

TREATMENT: It’s rare to reverse the underlying cause, says Dr Vanderpump. But it is possible to have testosterone replacement therapy to revert the symptoms and restore muscle strength.


OTHER SYMPTOMS: Increasingly tired over time; slight sight problems, thirst and passing more urine than usual; frequent infections, cuts that are slow to heal, numbness or tingling in hands or feet.

POSSIBLE CAUSE: Undiagnosed Type 2 diabetes, which affects around one million Britons. It can be triggered by obesity, which may explain why patients feel so tired.

‘If a person is unfit, everything they do requires more effort,’ says GP Professor Steve Field.

‘They may be eating fatty foods and not exercising, and that makes the body feel tired.’ Fluctuating blood sugar levels also lead to tiredness.

Type 2 diabetes is caused by the body’s inability to produce enough of the hormone insulin – or the insulin that is produced is not working properly.

The symptoms can take several weeks or longer to come on.

TREATMENT: The aim of treatment is to maintain blood glucose levels to avoid the risk of complications such as blindness, nerve damage, ulcers and amputation.

Treatment involves regular exercise, a healthy diet and sometimes medication to prevent high blood sugar.

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