Fatigue vs. tiredness - is there a difference?

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Ask Marianna

01 September 2019

What is the difference between feeling tired and being fatigued?

In recent years, when it comes to your health, tiredness and fatigue are terms that have been used interchangeably, with both being understood to mean much the same as the other. However, opinions are changing and now researchers consider tiredness and fatigue to be separate and distinctive issues.

Fatigue, previously thought to arise out of sleeplessness, is now being recognised as a condition with numerous underlying factors at work, such as mental health issues, long-term illness or stress. While tiredness can often be solved by a change in your routine or getting a good night’s rest, fatigue can be a more complex issue which a variety of symptoms, such as:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low stamina
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Anxiety
  • Low motivation

These symptoms may sound similar to those of tiredness but they usually last longer and are more intense. Feeling tired all the time is a common complaint but experts are now urging doctors to take such issues more seriously as it can have a significant impact on your well-being, and are often a warning sign of a larger health condition.

What causes fatigue?

As I have mentioned, a number of factors can contribute towards fatigue – prolonged sleeplessness, stress, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea and obesity can all be underlying triggers.

Interestingly, although the main cause may be different, most sufferers report experiencing similar symptoms. This trend was observed by Dr Karin Olson, who remarked that “while the reasons for fatigue may vary, the kinds of adaptations required may not.”

There is a theory that some instance of fatigue could be caused by a problem with our circadian rhythm. I have talked about this crucial internal body clock before and I’ve discussed how it can affect your hormones, mental awareness and sleep patterns. The SCN, otherwise known as the ‘Superchiasmic nucleus’ helps to regulate your circadian rhythm, monitoring your hormonal and electrical output.[1]

However, since the SCN makes decisions based on how much light is hitting your retina, it can become disrupted. Once it is disrupted, this, and not sleep deprivation, can affect your energy levels throughout the day, making you feel more lethargic and fatigued. This possibly is what may influence emotional disorders such as SAD.

Nevertheless, there is no definitive reason as to why fatigue occurs and, since often it is merely a symptom of an overarching illness, it can be difficult to identify and treat.

How do you deal with fatigue?

Despite how difficult it is to accurately pinpoint what causes fatigue, there are still a number of steps that you can take to reduce the difficult symptoms. Some of these steps may involve making a few simple lifestyle changes.

Change your diet

Your diet is extremely important when it comes to fighting the symptoms of fatigue. What you eat can make a real impact, as our Nutritionist Emma identifies in her article ‘Foods to help fight fatigue’ which I highly recommend you read.

When asked about diet and fatigue, Emma advises that "getting plenty of complex carbohydrates into your diet can help, along with sources of healthy fats and fibre."

She also explains that some forms of fatigue are even caused by nutritional deficiencies: "Fatigue can be a result of low iron or low vitamin D, so it’s always worth getting your levels checked by your doctor just to make sure! If you are deficient in a certain vitamin or mineral, like calcium or magnesium, then the best way to improve your intake is through dietary sources!"

Emma also suggests steering clear of more inflammatory foods such as refined sugar or alcohol, and the one thing experts seem united on, whether you’re simply tired or suffering from fatigue, is that caffeine is a big no-no! If you consume too many caffeinated beverages, it can trick your body into thinking that you have more energy available than you actually do.[2]

Not to mention, caffeine can linger in your system for hours, potentially disrupting your sleep pattern and exacerbating your symptoms! Instead, Emma recommends drinking plenty of plain water and swapping out your coffee for our caffeine-free alternative Bambu.

Get some exercise

You’re probably familiar with how exercise can help to alleviate tiredness, but some experts theorise that exercise won’t relieve the symptoms of fatigue.[3]  So why am I still encouraging you to get some? Well, earlier I did mention obesity and it turns out that this health complaint does have a toxic relationship with fatigue.

Obesity makes you vulnerable to a number of nutritional deficiencies such as iron deficiency, which can cause anaemia. Also, because movement is so hard, it can make you more predisposed to leading a sedentary lifestyle. If you are obese, you’re also more prone to inflammation, which can place additional stress on your immune system, causing your body to put you into ‘rest mode’ in an attempt to recover.

Stress is also another prime cause of fatigue and there’s plenty of evidence to support the notion that exercise can help to lower your stress levels! So while exercise might not directly help with fatigue, it can help with larger causes such as obesity and stress, which once combatted efficiently, can reduce the rest of your symptoms.

If you are going to start exercising, I would recommend starting with a low-impact, gentle form of exercise such as yoga, which can also encourage mindfulness and teach you breathing techniques to help you cope with stress! I also wouldn’t drink too many sports drinks unless your workout really justifies their consumption – remember; a lot of them are chockfull of artificial flavourings, sweeteners and preservatives!

Instead you could try our Balance Mineral Drink, which is 100% sugar-free and contains traces of electrolytes and minerals such as potassium and calcium. It’s excellent as a post-workout pick-me-up but it’s also very useful for combatting the symptoms fatigue, enabling you to concentrate and gently boosting your energy levels!

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You can drink it whenever you feel most tired, such as in the morning or when your energy slumps in the afternoon. It also makes a good post-workout drink.

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Reduce your stress levels

Stress, and your mental health in general, can play a role in instigating fatigue so it’s important that you address any stressors in your life, whether it’s work-related or connected to your friends and loved ones. Of course, switching off isn’t always easy – you might be aware that stress isn’t doing your health any good but that doesn’t make it any easier to relax.

I would start by making small, simple changes. Set apart some time in your day that’s just for yourself, whether it’s indulging in a bath or reading a book. This ‘me-time’ should give you some much-needed space and make it easier for you switch off. Try to regulate your sleep pattern too – go to bed at the same time every night and try to avoid your devices for a least an hour before bedtime.

As I’ve mentioned, exercise can be a great remedy for stress but make sure you don’t take it too far! Yoga and tai chi are great for imparting breathing techniques and they’re simple enough that you can perform them from the comfort of your own home! You could also try getting out in the fresh air, especially during winter, to optimise your chances of absorbing more vitamin D.

If you feel you could do with a little extra help, it might be worthwhile also trying our natural stress relief remedy, AvenaCalm, which can help to gently relax your nervous system, enabling you to cope better with anxious or stressful emotions.

Make sure you get a good night’s sleep

Sleep, arguably, has the biggest impact over your health and wellbeing, with poor sleep being associated with everything from weight-gain to hormonal imbalances. Fatigue isn’t always caused by sleep deprivation but you can bet that being sleep deprived won’t help your symptoms, especially if they are being stimulated by a larger problem such as stress or a long-term illness.

This is because stress and sleep go together hand in hand, with one often encouraging and exacerbating the other. Your body also does a lot of maintenance work when you sleep, so if you aren’t getting enough zzzz’s, your body isn’t getting the time it needs to repair itself, meaning that if you are suffering from an illness, it’s far more likely to linger.

As unlikely as it sounds, though, fatigue can sometimes make it difficult to sleep. That’s why I’d recommend taking a look at your routine before you go to bed. A lot of us try to unwind by watching television or videos on devices such as tablets or iPhones but these gadgets can affect your melatonin production due to the blue light that they emit, fooling your body into thinking it’s still daytime.

I would instead try to limit your use of these devices before bed and instead focus on a more relaxing activity that’s more likely to calm your mind. Read a book, meditate or go and have a long soak in the bath. It’s also vital that you consider what you’re eating before bed – remember that sugar and caffeine can hinder your ability to get a good night’s rest!

Finally, don’t overthink things. If you to bed with the attitude of ‘I have to be asleep by 10pm!’ the chances are you’ll spend a lot of your night with your eyes fixated on the clock. If you don’t feel tired, try picking up that book again or get out of bed and walk around for 10 minutes. Don’t push too hard and don’t look at the clock!


1. Williams C, Douglas K and Brahic C. (2017). How to be Human, John Murray Publishers, London, p.240-241

2. https://www.news-medical.net/news/2007/01/31/21652.aspx

3. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-fatigued-tired-s/fatigued-or-just-tired-there-is-a-difference-idUSCOL75594120070207


Originally published 11/10/2017, updated 01/10/2019

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