If you look at the persistent popularity of energy drinks, ephedrine, Adderall, and the like, you might conclude we're a nation of long-haul truckers, trance DJs, and meth cooks. Or you might conclude that Americans are just really, really tired.
Honestly, both are true. If you're tired all the time -- or if you're one of the aforementioned special-interest groups, in which case a life of sleep deprivation is almost a given -- read on for reasons why that may be. Hopefully, you'll end up with better sleep, and as a result, a life that sucks far less.
You're drinking too much booze
Ah, nightcaps. What's not to love about tucking yourself in with a Scotch on the rocks? Well, the next day, for one thing. The most adorably named, snuggliest-sounding drinking tradition relaxes you at first, before it obliterates your REM cycles. That causes you to sleep longer while feeling less refreshed.
In fact, if you continue the wonderful-but-ultimately-self-sabotaging act of drinking every night, you might find yourself with a fate worse than sobriety: a "permanent hangover" masquerading as fatigue.
"Your fatigue may be permanent hangover symptoms and it's one of the most common causes adults experience low energy levels," says Dr. Harold Jonas. "Alcohol can seriously disrupt your sleep by interfering with your body's chemical processes needed for sound sleep. If you consume multiple alcoholic drinks on a regular -- or even daily basis -- you may no longer experience traditional hangover symptoms, such as a raging headache or stomach issues."
You're not drinking enough water
Is there anything more boring than drinking water? Yes -- the countless articles warning you that you should drink more water. Sorry to do this to you, but this is one of those articles. Turns out that in addition to giving you clearer skin, brighter eyes, and being the actual elixir of life, water can help you sleep better.
"Dehydration can cause mental fatigue, lower blood pressure, and a slower metabolic rate, all of which makes us feel lethargic," says registered dietitian Hope Anderson. "Women need 2.7 liters of water per day and men should drink 3 liters per day."
Just make sure you're chugging those liters in early in the day, because while adequate hydration helps ensure a good night's sleep, an overly full bladder has the exact opposite effect.
You have mono
Mono isn't usually something you have to think about unless your home has a swipe card entry and a bored college student guarding the front door. But according to Dr. Ehsan Ali, the virus is one of the leading medical causes for fatigue -- and it's one that can go undetected by many blood tests.
There was a time in my early 20s when I slept 12 hours each night and usually got a solid nap in the afternoon, too. I could afford to do that because I was under-employed, didn't really have friends, and was living rent-free with my demented grandmother (demented because she had dementia). In retrospect? I was probably sleeping so much because I was depressed AF.
"One possible cause of general fatigue is clinical depression," says board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Celia Trotta. "People with severe depression may have low energy, low motivation, low mood, and poor concentration and/or focus."
Worst of all, fatigue is one symptom that can persist even after other symptoms of depression have lifted. So talk to a doctor or therapist if you think that's the case, because spending half your life asleep is just sad.
You're not getting enough exercise
File this one under lifestyle changes you can make to prevent depression as well as fatigue. You may have noticed that you sleep like a baby (a quiet baby, not one of those colicky babies) on days that you exercise. Moderate-intensity exercise helps even people with chronic insomnia fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Nobody really knows why that is, but why question it? You probably have enough keeping you up at night as it is.
"Even moderate exercise, such as walking, can help improve sleep," says Dr. Susan Hazels Mitmesser, Director, Nutrition & Science Affairs at Nature's Bounty. "Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week (or more). Just be sure not to exercise too close to bedtime to avoid feeling alert and energized when you should be winding down."
You're stressed out
Cortisol is a hormone your body produces as part of its normal functioning, but it also gets released as part of your stress response. Pretty much everyone knows that sleep doesn't come easily when you're stressed out, and cortisol may be to blame: It helps your body wake up in the morning, and if you're constantly screwing around with your cortisol, it could have an impact on your sleep quality.
The kicker is that being stressed can make you feel more tired, even if you got your usual amount of sleep.
To de-stress, Anderson recommends meditation and yoga -- the latter is great because it also checks the "exercise" box for ways to get better sleep.
You have a medical condition that's making you tired
This could be a thyroid condition, celiac disease, food sensitivity, nutrient deficiency, or low testosterone. The bad news is that these can be lifelong pains in the ass. The good news is they can be diagnosed with a simple blood draw. The bad news is you have to get stuck with a needle. The good news is... OK, I'm out. You get the point. There might be a serious medical condition behind your chronic tiredness.
"Since the body requires nutrients to operate, deficiencies lead to low energy levels. Examples of malabsorbed nutrients in celiac disease that can cause fatigue include iron, B12, magnesium, folate, riboflavin and others," says Ryan Whitcomb, integrative and functional dietitian/nutritionist. "I recommend getting a full nutrient panel. Nutrient deficiencies are so common and so easily avoidable, yet so many practitioners pay little attention to this area of the body."
Your sleep habits just suck
Even if you're doing everything right, you might just be setting yourself up for a bad's night sleep. Things like ambient light, noise, too much exposure to blue light in the evening hours, or an overly warm bedroom can all affect your circadian rhythms, says Kalle Simpson, who is so obsessed with quality sleep that she invented a special beauty pillow.
"Your circadian rhythm relies heavily on light to help it understand day versus night so it can send signals to your body to produce melatonin (your body's sleep hormone) which helps it achieve sleep and better quality sleep," she says. "Therefore, avoid blue lights close to bedtime -- cell phones, TVs, etc. And make sure to open your blinds first thing in the morning to allow exposure to natural light so your body knows it's time to be awake."
So if it's the middle of the night and you're reading this article... what are you doing to yourself? Go to bed!